The Anatomy of an Idea in Collaborative Innovation

Innovators and enterprises invest hugely in the production of ideas. But did you ever stop to think.... precisely what is an idea and what counts as a contribution?

My clients and I cover miles of ground as we get to the heart of what it means for the people in their organization to achieve leadership in innovation. Over time we visit and revisit, cast and recast, and frame and reframe the matters of…

  • What is the critical question which, if we explored it fully with the community, would lead to breakthroughs relative to the challenge at hand?
  • Who do we invite to engage with us on the question? What possibilities open when we convene the members in virtual and physical community?
  • What commitment do we each choose to make in exploring the question?
  • What level of ownership do we each choose to take in the practice of innovation?

Interestingly, in our zeal to form the context of the enquiry, we devote less time on a more technical and, yet, more fundamental question: What is an idea, exactly? What parts comprise the whole? Do we require a raw insight, or notion, to meet certain criteria before we recognize it as an idea?

I use the term “interestingly” because, at the end of the day and by the end of the play, the sponsor of the innovation initiative assesses the success of the collective efforts of the community by taking stock of the nature and number of ideas the members contribute. As important, the people who play the many, various roles in the community cannot fully grasp the nature of their commitment without first coming to a shared understanding of the nature of what they plan to create together by way of ideas. You commit to building a car with me? Excellent. I have in mind an Alpha Romeo rag top. You have sketched the curves of a Mercedes S-Class sedan. Perhaps we should talk before we order the sheet metal.

This article begins to explore the anatomy of an idea. Please refer to figure 1 as we go.

Figure 1: the anatomy of an idea

Click to enlarge

Before we proceed, however: caveat emptor. If some august body of learned people, all gurus of the fuzzy front end, has agreed upon a formal definition of an idea outside patent law I have yet to learn of it. And, even if allowed this wisdom, I would approach their pronouncement with a healthy dose of skepticism. Why? Context and personal preference influence the answer. To this end, please consider the following discourse as food for thought: a place to start your own enquiry. I would in turn value your perspective on this subject.

To start, then, and with reference to figure 1, a fully formed idea consists of three elements: Definition, Elaboration, and Rationalization.


In the first element Definition we find the core, descriptive aspects of the idea, including of course the name or other identifier so we can distinguish and find it amongst its peers. We also have the name of its originator or subsequent owner. Every idea must have an owner. An idea, absent an owner as the person who commits to advocating for its realization, stands no chance of reaching its potential. The practice of ideation, at its core, embodies the practice of leadership.

The practice of ideation, at its core, embodies the practice of leadership.

Under Definition we have the explanatory elements of the idea: observation, implication, and application. Here, I borrow from, and remain indebted to, Christopher Miller and his group at Innovation Focus, who informed my thinking on this front as they taught me their guided approach to gathering insights, which they call Hunting for Hunting Grounds. I have found that this form of guided enquiry helps innovators more fully capture their insights in a way that effectively enables the community to further elaborate on and ultimately act upon the ideas.

The observation provides insight on what the innovator experienced in the world at large that caused them to have this idea. What did they see? Hear? Smell? Touch? Providing this form of neutral commentary becomes crucial in the later stages of idea development, when members of the innovation community may choose to reframe and rationalize a set of related ideas based on their core, underlying observations, or drivers.

Next, we have implications. Meaning. What connections does the innovator make between what they observe and what their observations mean relative to the community? Do the observations, for example, imply a larger opportunity that the organization can realize in pursuing the idea in question? Do the observations imply a threat to the organization’s charter that the community must resolve? Implications help the community understand the larger effect, influence, opportunity, or threat the idea represents.

And, we have applications. Directive. What steps does the innovator propose to take—or proposes the organization take—in order to experiment with or apply the idea in question? Some ideas can, at first pass, seem daunting to implement. Perhaps they would require a substantial capital investment to fully realize. What I have often found, however, is that the innovator, already thinking ahead, has identified lower cost or lower risk ways to try the idea (e.g., prototyping) before they themselves would feel comfortable taking it to the next level. The applications component gives the community an opportunity to benefit from this thinking.

The innovation team at times wants to go right to the applications, bypassing the opportunity to solicit valuable, additional context from the contributors. The fear is always, if I make it too difficult for community members to contribute, nobody will participate. In reality, the innovation team should embrace having this discussion with their community. That is, what price does the originator and any team that forms around the idea pay to participate?

One price, or minimum price of entry, is the commitment to share fully formed ideas. Otherwise, the team who committed to leading the innovation initiative risks finding themselves supporting the virtual equivalent of a suggestion box (e.g., “Let’s implement an employee of the month program.” Why? We’ll have to ask the contributor for perspective, assuming they remember.)


From here we move to the next major element, Elaboration. That is, an idea contributed to a collaborative innovation environment becomes community property in both the virtual and physical sense. Fellow members provide commentary that extends (e.g., “What if… ?”), clarifies (e.g., “What do you mean by the implication that… ?”), and challenges (e.g., “What obstacles exist to trying this idea with left-handed tuba players residing in Chattanooga?”). The idea that the originator first submits often looks nothing like the idea in later stages in the hands of a vibrant, capably facilitated community.

The idea that the originator first submits often looks nothing like the idea in later stages in the hands of a vibrant, capably facilitated community.

Many types of, and opportunities for practicing, elaboration exist. Elaboration tends to fall into three categories: commentary, assessment, and documentation. Commentary enriches the idea. Commentary comes in the form of dialogue when practiced in the physical community and perspectives when contributed in the virtual community. Assessment, by comparison, offers the owner and sponsor perspective on the extent to which the reviewer believes the idea will achieve general benchmarks (e.g., likelihood of adoption) and perhaps also benchmarks specific to the challenge in question (e.g., Does an idea contributed to a challenge on sustainability promise to preserve resources?). People looking for potential criteria by which the community can assess ideas will find Everett RogersDiffusion of Innovations a source of inspiration.

The originator can of course provide documentation (e.g., studies, plans, schematics) when they first contribute an idea. Community members, too, often create their own trail of documentation as an extension of commentary and assessment (e.g., documentation generated in the form of a mapping exercise with the community or offered as a way to more deeply explain the idea to the community).


We then come to the last, primary element that defines the idea, Rationalization. Most organizations that sponsor or otherwise support innovation in an overt, formal manner find that some number of their contributors will offer ideas that, upon reflection, appear as variations on a theme. This outcome makes perfect sense when the population shares similar characteristics such as working with the same set of customers (and, thus, receives similar feedback) or having received similar educations (e.g., a community of PhD chemists).

Innovation teams will often take pains to achieve diversity in order to increase the number of Greenfield ideas by randomizing the population of their innovation community in a significant way. Here, the sponsor of the innovation initiative may choose to juxtapose and, ultimately, meld similar ideas and their respective owners around common themes. They may invite the community to participate in, and take ownership of, the process by convening the members in enquiry-driven approaches such as The World Café.

Observations and implications serve as the points of reference for combining and reframing ideas into clusters that the team recognizes as sharing conceptual similarities.

On a practical note, innovation teams realize at this juncture the value in having had community members contribute their observations and implications as part of the Definition element. Observations and implications serve as the points of reference for combining and reframing ideas into clusters that the team recognizes as sharing conceptual similarities. Applications, by extension, can help the innovation team rationalize and coordinate the action plan (i.e., next steps).

I find in my work with clients that the resulting clusters tend to fall into three categories: Greenfield ideas, new approaches or perspectives on ideas someone in the organization has already chosen to pursue, and ideas that reinforce current practice. I see that latter two in larger organizations, in particular, when the opportunity for the left hand to remain unaware of the right hand’s activities remains large. The act of combining and reframing a set of essentially similar ideas—ideas that share materially the same observations and implications—can lead to the happy result of the originators agreeing to join forces in order to more efficiently pursue further exploration.

What Next?

What comes after rationalization? It’s at this point when we begin to leave the beginning of the fuzzy front end and enter the concept phase, which can involve various forms of prototyping and trialing. What do we have to do or build to bring the tangible, fully formed realization of the idea to the people we anticipate will benefit from it?

Of course, the originator or sponsoring organization may find they can implement some ideas immediately, without having to devote further resources to discovery (e.g., “let’s answer the phone on the first ring to improve customer service”).

Later progressions and the further evolution of an idea into a more fully formed concept may take the form of ethnographic studies, experiments, business plan drafts, and exploratory meetings with potential partners. Ideas on the path to becoming tangible products or services may enter the organization’s stage gate, or commercialization process. The financial commitment in the form of money, people, and time tends to grow. The list of potential outcomes and approaches to arrive at the desired outcome becomes endless. Yet, the ties back to the essence of the original idea and its originator remain strong.

Figure 2 depicts the journey, highlighting the various people involved in the various stages.

Figure 2: forming and reforming the idea within the community

Click to enlarge

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.
  • Brad Barbera

    Excellent construct to help provide structure to “the fuzzy front end!” You are absolutely right, that few approaches to innovation actually define what an idea is, and much is then forgotten or left out. Well done!

  • Brad Barbera

    The Anatomy of an Idea in Collaborative Innovation – framework for providing structure to the fuzzy front end of #innovation

  • Neil Glassman

    Unfortunately, too often — someplace between “elaboration” and “realization” — we get “attenuation” and/or “homogenization” where process sucks the life force out of the idea rendering it relatively useless. Solid model, Doug, and three cheers for the companies that are able to get to and through the realization stage.

  • Tom Makoski

    Translating ideas into worthwhile business initiatives is difficult. Many good ideas fall by the wayside, because they did not get nurtured. Understanding the ideation process can help an organization develop and nurture ideas, and ultimately transition them into valuable business plans – nice article Doug!

  • Mvandall

    Nice work Doug!

  • Rob Urbanowicz

    Excellent work Doug – I like the comment about innovation today – in most businesses I too see that innovation is characterized as A) building on what we have (like adding the paint can holder to the ladder), or B) reinforcing current practice (like making the ladder taller). What I would like to see is more organizations – especially B2B organizations – engage with their customers to define the problem and the solutions – how refreshing would that be??

  • Andrey Zorin

    Doug, very interesting and important topic. Your article initiated some questions.
    1. 1. Which elements of the idea discussed
    in this article, do you think, make the idea different from a description of
    the situation or disagreement between two points of view?2. 2. How do you classified ideas? For
    which type of the ideas the described method is most suitable (is apllied the
    best)?3. 3. There is no correlation with the
    Critical Question in the proposed method. Is there no necessity in it or is
    this activity outside the described method , on your opinion?4. 4. How does the process of developing
    idea in time deal with its anatomy? (eg. – Does anatomy of the idea change
    during process described in the article)

  • Doug Collins


    You ask thought-provoking questions.

    My experience has been that an idea, by its very existence, represents a person’s essential point of view, based on their perception of the situation or environment. That is, of the infinite number of potential ideas the person could have expressed, they chose to express, and perhaps choose now to pursue, the one they put before us.

    I don’t know that I have a classification scheme in mind. Ideas seem inherently plastic in that we can readily place them in abstract or concrete contexts, and back again, depending on our intent. Would value your perspective.

    To me, the critical question by its nature drives the context for the idea, regardless of whether we form it in pursuing our own enquiry or receive it from a sponsor in the form of a challenge. 

    My experience has been that the core elements that comprise an idea remain relevant as the innovator develops it. However, the emphasis– or what attribute appears most important — shifts over time. 


  • Andrey Zorin

    For me it is quite debatable question about existence of universal process for all types of ideas.
    For example, let’s take three different types of ideas.
    First type – idea describes essential difference between structure of environment and structure of community discourse and author suggests changing in structure of community discourse.
    Second type – idea describes essential difference between design of the building and the real implementation and author suggests changing in current construction process.
    Third type – idea suggests replacing of “old” notion for describing environment with “new” one and author offers starting community discussion about this topic.
    Is it possible to execute the process described in the article for treating with these types of ideas without any modification of the process?

    Thanks in advance for your reply.

    Best, Andrey

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