Idea Flow Mapping

We teach Idea Flow Mapping to map the journey of a new idea, from inception to implementation, including how it was impacted by its organizational and social context. The process enables leaders to better diagnose and reduce friction and optimize the healthy flow of new ideas from anywhere in the organization. Idea Flow Mapping helps with designing pathways for new ideas to go through healthy processes of de-risking, socializing, and scaling. This can lead to profound improvements in organizational design.


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The essential demand placed upon humankind by myriad global environmental, social and economic imperatives is the demand to change almost everything we do, quickly, stably and constantly. This epic amount of stable change can only be achieved by the ongoing application, scaling and adaptation of enormous numbers of new ideas. Ideas of all scales, ideas that involve all disciplines, ideas that emerge within and across all types of organizations.

Ideas in themselves are mere vapours of possibility. Like seeds thrown to the wind, ideas follow the contours of a destiny shaped by a complex mix of conditions and forces. It is through the application, scaling and adaptation of ideas (or new knowledge) that real value and impact is generated. To this end, it is helpful to talk about Idea Flow.

Idea Flow considers the full life cycle of an idea from its inception to its robust implementation and continuous adaptation. Idea Flow concerns both the nature and quality of the path or process experienced by a new idea going through its full life cycle within its organizational/social context.

The Secret Life of Ideas

Every new idea, project or enterprise has a life cycle from inception to completion that is as unique as a fingerprint. This is because every idea exists within a unique context, faces a unique constellation of risks and opportunities and requires the engagement of a unique constellation of stakeholders to engage. As the idea progresses through its life cycle it passes through different stages. Each stage results in either the end of the idea life cycle or its progression onto the next stage. Early idea life cycle stages include things like sensing emerging need/possibility, idea inception, activation of champions or early adopters, etc. Middle stages of an idea life cycle often involve deeper learning efforts, piloting, iterating, de-risking and clarifying implementation requirements. Later idea life cycle stages include things like official approvals, funding allocations and scaling. By becoming explicitly and consciously engaged in understanding and designing the life cycle of an idea, friction can be reduced and Idea Flow increased. This allows people to bring more purpose-drive ideas to life with reduced levels of effort and social friction and increased levels of engagement and empowerment.

Idea Flow as a Human Health Intervention

The 21st Century has revealed a catastrophic gap in our societal capacity for addressing the later stages of Idea Flow, the stages of application, scaling and ongoing adaptation. One cataclysmic exemplar of this societal imbalance between knowledge creation and knowledge application - we know a lot about the sustainability imperative, its human health impacts and what we must do to secure the health and wellbeing of current and future generations, but we have applied, scaled and adapted very little of what we know.

What our Sustainability Leadership Program has been teaching us about Idea Flow

The problem we face right now is that our organizations are not designed to handle the emergence of large numbers of new ideas. They are not able to create Idea Flow. To understand more about this, we’ve been asking senior leaders this question: "Is there a clear path for a good idea to come from anywhere in your organization?" The general consensus is no, there is no clear path for a good idea to find its way forward from anywhere, not for universities, corporations, airports, government agencies, nor non-profits alike. There are some specific exceptions, but they are specific and they are exceptions. Instead, the general agreement seems to be that the success of a new idea depends mostly on the sheer tenacity of its champion. What’s more, leaders tend to concur that this level of dependence on tenacious champions is far from ideal.

If you’ve ever been one of those tenacious champions of a new idea - you know first hand, the exhaustion that results from navigating an organizational context that seems, at times, to go out of its way to inhibit anything new. Whether you are leading from the top, middle or grass roots - the work of championing a new idea through your organization is typically exhausting and fraught with discouragement.

Currently, most of our organizations, across all sectors, are designed primarily to ensure the efficiency and accountability over existing operations. They do not provide conditions for high volumes of Idea Flow. In essence, our dominant organizational model lacks a kind of fertility that is proving to be central to our future survival.

Idea Flow is something that can be learned, led and hardwired into our organizational DNA. The process begins with gaining an understanding the current state of Idea Flow within your organization. For this purpose, we have created an open source process we call Idea Flow Mapping.


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The Official Story and the Real Story 

See if this trend sounds familiar: Often in retrospect, when we try to explain how an idea came to fruition in an organizational context, we tell the story as a simple linear narrative, glazing over the complexities and the arduous dips and curves, the 3 steps back to our 2 steps forward, that were endured as we or others pushed for the idea’s implementation.  We may not even be conscious about our tendency to literally iron out all of these zig-zags and curly-cues when we think back on the idea’s path on the individual level, perhaps because it was so exhausting to endure the first time we are not so ready to commit those parts of the tale to memory. The devil is in the details, as they say, and why would we want to relive the seeming tedium of this effort!  Or maybe it is because the operating systems within which we conduct our business demand of us a linear, rational-seeming narrative. But, if we can make it a conscious practice to recall and document the REAL STORY rather than the OFFICIAL STORY, mapping the true complexity, we find that there is real value in seeing the path for what it truly was.  By mapping the real story of what contributed to an idea’s successful implementation, patterns come into view that can become invaluable roadmaps for improving future Idea Flow.

We ask leaders and champions for important new ideas and innovations to step back, see the bigger picture, and unravel the workings and pathways within your organization, to better understand how decisions actually get made (rather than how we are told or assume they get made) and use this new understanding to bolster the efforts of those trying to push ideas of sustainability and innovation in our workplace.  If we can see more clearly the rationale of decision-making and Idea Flow logic within our organizations, we can use this to foster the conditions for important ideas to successfully take root and blossom.  This is key to the success of sustainability initiatives in particular, which may come up against old (outdated) organizational (ir)rationalities which believe sustainable practices to be antithetical to or outside the realm of the mission and vision of the organization.

Idea Flow Mapping Exercise

How Do We Teach Idea Flow Mapping?

During our executive education sessions, we don’t just prescribe a remedy for your organizational woes that may or may not work when you get back to the office on Monday, where you may find it has no actual meaning or relevance for you in your work setting.  We want you to use these 4 days to help co-create and (re)discover what we have already found to be an effective game changer for sustainability leadership, this concept of Idea Flow Mapping.  We offer our cohorts the opportunity to run a diagnostic on their own past examples of an idea’s passage through an organization using our mapping template - to better understand how ideas have come to fruition in their respective sectors and organizations - and as a group attempt to tease out the trends and find the commonalities on how a good idea takes hold.  And by conducting “forensics” on past successful idea flows, we are better equipped to understand and support the process of idea flow for future ideas, and to create the structures and conditions for the idea to come out on top and be enacted. In doing so, we are minimizing the “friction”, and enhancing the possibility of “flow”.

It is our hope that by cultivating these skills during our 4-day Exec Ed course, working with your peers from across a variety of sectors, you will walk away with a new understanding for how to effectively promote Idea Flow within your organization or network and be an effective sustainability leader adept at orchestrating and cultivating the conditions for meaningful shifts to occur.