Three principles to help you generate better ideas
Recently I've stumbled upon another historical artifact that illuminates idea generation. This is a really nice short booklet or pamphlet written by James Webb Young over 60 years ago. The booklet is entitled A Technique for Producing Ideas, and it offers great philosophical insight into how to improve your skill at generating ideas.
There are two principles that Young introduces that I think are especially interesting.
First, he suggests that every new idea is simply a combination of existing elements. This means that good innovators are able to create interesting combinations of existing technologies, solutions or capabilities. Young probably wasn't the first to notice this concept, but was perhaps the first to detail the concept so definitively.
Second he suggests that the ability to make good combinations is based on the ability to see relationships and understand how concepts and ideas are interlinked. He was thinking about complex relationships back then in ways that we almost take for granted now.
These two principles should tell us a lot about our individual capability and capacity for generating ideas, and how to become better at generating ideas.
In the first case, if Young is correct and every new idea is an interesting and new combination of existing elements, then the ability to generate ideas scales with your ability to imagine combinations of many different types of elements. The more elements, technologies or solutions you are familiar with, the more potential combinations. This means that people who have more diverse experiences and familiarize themselves with more "elements", should be able to create more combinations, or in this parlance, ideas. Conversely, people who are experts in a specific field and who do not "browse" widely in other fields may not have awareness or familiarity with a large number of different elements. This may limit the number of possible combinations and worse, the individual may have already attempted many of the possible combinations previously based on his or her limited inventory. A person with a limited inventory of elements and deep experience has attempted to combine those elements before and has discovered that those specific combinations don't work. This is why expertise can be dangerous when generating ideas.
This first principle also suggests that introducing random information, objects or experiences as an individual or team starts to generate ideas may offer more potential combinations.
The second principle Young introduces is the ability to see relationships within potential combinations. His quote about advertising is especially apropos. "In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events." Young believed that idea generators needed specific information about a key topic and broad general information in order to innovate, and understanding the relationships that were possible within discrete combinations were what would produce a valuable idea. From an innovation point of view, the specific information is based on the unmet need or "job to be done". The more we understand that, the better. The general information is the inventory of potential elements or solutions. This is why generating ideas without conducting needs investigation or research often fails. We typically lack both the specific knowledge and use very limited general knowledge, which restricts the ability to generate more and better ideas.
Note that Young's advertising concept - combining specific knowledge with broad general knowledge - is what we now describe as "T-Shaped". Ideo and others have acknowledged that good innovators are often very deep in a specific skill set or knowledge base, but very networked with a broad range of people or experiences.
Do we have the patience and ability to find the important relationships? Too often the relationships aren't obvious on the surface. Young addressed this as well when he wrote "If we go deeply enough, or far enough, we nearly always find that between every product and some consumer there is an individuality of relationship". That is, at the surface there may not appear to be an interesting or unique relationship, but if we look carefully and deeply we can find interesting and valuable relationships. This is the essence of fully understanding customer wants and needs. Taken at the surface level, all wants and needs are evident. If we take the time to drill into a challenge or problem more deeply, we'll find unexplored and unexplained needs to solve.
Letting go and letting your unconscious take over
Young offers one other point about good idea generation. Often the best ideas emerge once you've given up working on them with your conscious mind, and allowed your unconscious mind to take over. That's why good ideas happen in strange places, like in the shower or while you are driving to work, when your mind isn't intently focused on forcing connections.
If this assertion is true, then many brainstorming and idea generation functions are poorly structured. Trying to generate a lot of ideas in 30 minutes is fine, but unless you allow for time for the unconscious mind to work, you'll miss good ideas. Our preferred idea generation method is to allow time to prepare, before the idea generation session, and then break up idea generation into two short sessions, ideally a session in the morning of the first day, followed by other activities and then gathering again the morning of the second day, to harvest ideas people had while driving home or watching their kids play sports, when the mind isn't preoccupied with finding an immediate answer.
Even if this is a "best practice", it's hard to convince busy business executives that their teams need time to explore other connections, or for their unconscious brain to take over. It's like that ad that IBM ran about innovation, where an executive finds a bunch of people on the floor on mats in the dark. That may not be a bad way to allow the unconscious to work, but few executives are going to understand it and allow it.
Many people have asked me over the years how to become a better idea generator. They'd like to generate more and better ideas on their own, and in a group setting. Young's short booklet is one of the best outlines I've seen to help you consider the inputs that are necessary, and the mental models that support good idea generation. Check it out, and follow his advice to become a better idea generator.