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The Innovation Engine

The Dangerous Idea People

You are an Idea Monkey. You’ve been told you’re gifted. You can come up with dozens of ideas about any topic on command. Any topic. You are (to quote the underappreciated movie Night Shift) “an idea guy, Chuck,” and whether it’s putting mayo in the can with the tuna or designing an app that matches personality types with the appropriate dog breed, you can be counted on for something new, different, and wild. There isn’t a day that goes by when you don’t amaze those around you with your nimble mind and your ability to turn any challenge into a brainstorm.

Idea Monkeys like you identify with Walt Disney, Ted Turner, and Richard Branson. Heck, you’re half-convinced you could have been Walt, Ted, or Rich if you had just been born a bit sooner. While we don’t always understand your strange and magical ways, we do believe the world needs more people like you. Like Alfred E. Neuman, you fearlessly make us laugh and see things differently, which is why we believe your talents are fundamental to making innovation happen. After all, who doesn’t like talking mice, CNN, and vacations to the moon?

So what’s the problem?

That’s simple. You may be ideating yourself out of a job and diluting your company’s bottom line. You are likely distracting co-workers, confounding managers, and ticking off your CFO. People haven’t yet forgotten your last “Dot.gone” idea or the flavored pet water that became the most popular, least profitable project of the year.

Yes, we know, few people understand your brilliance. But what you need to understand is that even as you read this, your name is probably being added to a file full of people who may be causing more trouble than they’e worth.

Jeff Kaney is an Idea Monkey. He’s the CEO of Kaney Aerospace, which provides world-class laboratory operations, engineering services, and flight-test support to the international aerospace market. He feels your pain. He also points us toward a solution.

“There have been points in my career that I have been so overwhelmed with ideas, and in turn so overwhelming because of my ideas, that I was a distraction to everyone around me. In fact, one of the best ideas I ever had was to stop having new ideas for a few months. I needed to focus. More important, I needed to let my team focus. I also needed an operator with complementary skills. I feel fortunate I found time to make both happen.”

Let’s assume you, like Kaney, have become enlightened. You are therefore aware of the side effects induced by your brand of madness. How do you keep your brilliance from ruining your life and damaging the company?

Use Your Powers for Good, Not Evil

Star Wars fans are familiar with the concept of “The Force,” a mystical power that can be used for either good or evil. From our experience, most Idea Monkeys are a force, earnestly trying to do good things but often unknowingly using their talents in destructive ways. For example:

•They have far too many ideas for any team to take on.
•They have ideas about things that don’t matter to the organization.
•They are great at starting things and often lousy at finishing them.

You get the idea.

If Yoda were writing this column, we suspect he’d say something like, “Focus on what matters most, you must.” This would be good coaching for a Jedi Idea Monkey. (Editor’s note: Idea Monkeys love mixed metaphors.)

Where do you focus?

Let us answer a question with a question: Do you know what challenge is keeping your boss up at night? She does. Why not find out if you are helping solve the company’s biggest challenges. If you’re not, you are likely creating new challenges (read: distractions) for her to think about.

If you are a person charged with managing Idea Monkeys—we call you the Ring Leader—here’s a related idea for you: Instead of creating a “To Do” list for your most creative team members, why not start by asking everyone on the team—especially the Idea Monkeys—to create a “Stop Doing” list? Make sure you make a list too. Clearing away the stuff that doesn’t matter allows you to focus on the stuff that does.

Then let the Idea Monkeys go wild with ideas. As long as they are ideating on the correct challenge, you need to be open to unexpected, perhaps unconventional, solutions to this challenge. This is where they shine and can help the most.

The best teams and best companies respect and find balance between the Idea Monkey’s ability to create and inspire with big ideas and the Ring Leader’s ability to channel those ideas so they have the biggest possible impact.

Maddock is chief executive, and Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, an innovation consultancy that specializes in inventing and launching new products, services, and businesses. Maddock and Viton are the authors of Free the Idea Monkey (ISB Publishing, 2012), and Maddock is the author of Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox—How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models (Wiley, 2011).

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