Mind your language

Ideation, from suicide to management speak

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

‘Suicide!’ yelled my husband, while performing an inappropriate mime of a hangman’s noose. That was his reply when I asked him what ideation suggested to him.

Unknown to him, ideation has, since my husband’s day, made an unlikely leap from psychiatry to management theory. ‘Management gurus,’ wrote Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian, ‘seem inordinately obsessed with free office pizza and open-plan offices where people can bump into each other for out-of-the-box ideation opportunities.’


Ideation only means coming up with ideas. While that is essential to any business, this technical-sounding term has been recruited to the task of making it seem that coming up with ideas is scientific and susceptible to being harnessed for profit. A whole book, Ideation: The Birth and Death of Ideas, by Douglas Graham and Thomas T. Bachmann, came out in 2004, prefaced by praise from Sir David Cooksey, whose motto is: ‘We help translate good ideas into great business.’ Sir David is a successful venture capitalist. More familiar is the flim-flam satirised in the comedy W1A, in which Barney Lumsden, a brand consultant, was appointed ‘ideation architect’ to Ian Fletcher, the ‘head of values’ at the BBC.

The odd thing is that this pseudo-science was preceded by not quite such pseudo-science in quite another field. Suicidal ideation had become the standard term for suicidal thoughts when in 1979 the American psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck (still with us, and 97 on 18 July) devised his ‘Scale for Suicide Ideation’. It can indeed often indicate how dangerous suicidal thoughts may be. Other factors, in America, include whether you own a gun.

Sometimes, though, suicide does not follow neat patterns. Dr Beck has achieved much good through cognitive therapy and has devised lots of other inventories, such as the Beck Hopelessness Scale, which I feel should be applied to the government’s behaviour over Brexit. Ideation was used 200 years ago, in 1818, by Coleridge in the misty backwaters of idealist philosophy. But now it thrives in two specialist silos, of psychiatry and management theory, with hardly an echo reaching one from the other.

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