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Psychological researchers say your 2nd-favorite idea is usually the best one

Posted by Grace Townsley

June 16, 2021    |     4-minute read (690 words)

Innovation is the magic behind every successful startup, small business and entrepreneurial venture. Just a little of it can boost a startup past its competitors or completely revitalize a stagnant business. Every entrepreneur knows the value of innovation, but how can this value be tapped? Where exactly does innovation come from and how can a business owner intentionally pursue it?

Recently, psychological research has shown that our first idea, while usually more concrete and well-formed, is often not as promising as our second idea. 

First ideas fall flat, while second ideas showcase our creativity. 

When we approach an opportunity like launching a new business or creating a new product line, the first idea that comes to mind tends to be fully formed, concrete, achievable and realistic. Sound familiar? 

This first idea is often easy to apply and is not unlike other activities the entrepreneur or business is already engaging in. As the entrepreneur develops this first idea, the limitations of its value quickly become apparent. Yet this idea is almost always favored because people prefer concrete, easily understandable concepts. 

The second idea we think of when approaching an opportunity is usually more abstract. Often, this idea is not yet fully formed, the value may be hard to see and it will not be easily applied to the existing context. Chances are, it is a sharp pivot from the company’s “status quo.” 

Not surprisingly, this idea usually gets canned. Too much abstraction in an idea almost always makes it appear bad, unreachable, ineffective or just too hard to implement. The value in the second idea tends to be overlooked because this idea never gets developed enough for the brilliance in it to be revealed. 

Psychological research shows that this second idea, if allowed to develop, often brings more value and innovation to a company than the first idea. It’s as though once our brain has time to consider the opportunity and get the most obvious idea out of the way, we can finally begin to think creatively. 

The good news is that the untapped innovation in our second idea can be harnessed if we intentionally change how we brainstorm. 

How you can apply these findings to your next brainstorm session.

While our temptation is to choose the idea that appears most concrete, taking the time to see our second idea through might just reveal its innovation. How can business owners apply these findings to their own context?

First, delay making the final choice of which idea to pursue until you have had enough time to fully develop and deeply consider at least two ideas. Eager entrepreneurs may feel they don’t have time to waste on chasing multiple concepts in this ideation stage, but choosing the right idea in the beginning is the difference between innovating or repeating the norm. You can’t afford to rush this step. 

Second, dare to consider why your ideas might fail. We don’t like to admit that not all ideas have value. And we don’t like to look for failure. But research shows that developing a pros and cons list that honestly judges an idea for its promising features and failure risks is invaluable in the decision-making process. The earlier the better, as this list also helps the decision-makers better understand the nuances of the opportunity by encouraging deep-thinking. 

Finally, share your innovative second idea only once you have developed it out. While you may see the value in the new idea, the less concrete a concept, the more difficult it is to get others on board. Don’t risk having your innovative idea crushed by a skeptic before it is fully formed. 

Key takeaway

Whether you’re a startup or a mature business, don’t miss the implication of this research. If you are consistently pursuing your first idea and abandoning your more abstract concepts, you could be missing the innovative boost your business needs! Take time to consider every opportunity and see your abstract ideas through. You might just be on the edge of a pivotal breakthrough. 

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