Ideation Pitfalls Part 1: The Herd Effect

Most companies don’t have a problem with generating innovation ideas. Many are awash with ideas. The problem is usually working out which ideas to resource and investigate further. And it is this process of initial idea evaluation that is often flawed. It results in good ideas being killed before they can even sprout any limbs.

So, what is going wrong when organisations evaluate initial innovation ideas? There are two main culprits to watch out for; the herd effect and the not normal issue (which we’ll delve into in Part 2).

The Herd Effect 

Ideation Pitfalls Part 1: The Herd Effect

Image source: Unsplash

When animals are in a herd or flock, they can be seen to regularly move in unison. Often one or two leaders head in one direction. Then momentum builds as more and more join until the majority of the herd or flock are all heading in the same direction.

And this is what tends to happen when an organisation has generated a number of innovation ideas that need to be assessed for their initial potential.

The concept of human herding has a long history in philosophy and crowd psychology. It is defined as a phenomenon in which individuals act collectively as part of a group, often making decisions as a group that they would not make as an individual. This is not a good behaviour to employ when assessing the potential of new ideas.


illustration of a desk and stools. a wall covered in paper with lots of different coloured post-its attached


Image source: The Strategy Distillery


Let’s take, for example, an ideation workshop. Often tools such as ‘power dotting’ or ‘post-it noting’ are employed as a methodology to supposedly weed out the best ideas. Yet the herding mentality means that it will not be a group, or unbiased, decision for a number of reasons.

  1. In a group situation there is a strong social pressure to conform and be accepted. But not everyone is equal. In most businesses there are levels of seniority or power. The need to conform and be accepted by senior people is high. This means that in our ideation workshop scenario the group will tend to follow the decision making of the most senior person in the room; even if those choices go against individual knowledge or instincts.
  2. The “herding” makes people question their own judgement. Even brave individuals who don’t have a strong need to conform, find themselves thinking “they all can’t be wrong” or “they must know something I don’t”.
  3. For those that like to keep their heads down it means that they don’t have to think or make any decisions. They just follow.

So, countermeasures have to be taken to stop very raw ideas living or dying on the basis of the assumptions and bias of one or two individuals within a business.

In A Nutshell

  • Good ideas get sabotaged as they often don’t even make it out of the ideation stage.
  • Instead, a lesser idea gets the backing and resources due the lack of impartial measurement criteria.
  • Strategies have to be employed to take account of the herd affect.

Keep your eyes peeled for Ideation Pitfalls Part 2: The Not Normal Issue.

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Shelly GreenwayShelly Greenway is a front-end innovation strategist and partner at The Strategy Distillery – a brand innovation consultancy that specialises in opportunity hunting and proposition development. Their success rates are driven by their proprietary consumer co-creation IP. Follow @ChiefDistiller

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Shelly Greenway

Front-end Innovation Strategist at The Strategy Distillery, a brand innovation consultancy that exists to increase NPD success rates.




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