Before Creativity, Before Innovation, You Need An Idea

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark:  random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight.  There is nothing yet to research.  For me, these moments are not pretty.  I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head:  “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going.  The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit


I was just revisiting my handout from the book Where Good Ideas Come From.  Steven Johnson argues that a lot goes into the discovery of those really good ideas.  To get to “good idea, “ you have to:  go with the “flow;” you have to have, and then jettison, a bunch of bad ideas; you have to learn to rely on hunches much more than those fast/sudden/amazing eureka moments (which, really, is not the secret sauce behind most good ideas); you have to come to realize that good hunches are slow in coming – -they are “slow hunches.”

You have to build, and take advantage of, an environment that nurtures  good ideas:

This is a book about the space of innovation.  Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly.

Good ideas come from many places:

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and occasionally, contracts) over time.
A good idea is a network…  an idea is not a single thing.  It is more like a swarm.

Good ideas come from people – notice that that is “people” (plural!):

The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.

And, remember, that creativity, and then innovation, are the result of good ideas.  Johnson’s decision to talk about good ideas was significant:

I have deliberately chosen the broadest possible phrasing – good ideas – to suggest the cross-disciplinary vantage point I am trying to occupy.

So…pretend that you have a group of people who have nurtured the idea generation skill that is needed.  You come together to work on generating new, good, usable ideas.

What do you do?

You have some brainstorming sessions. And then, you have the chance of sparking/catching those good ideas.  You are looking for that someone in that crowd that can help you come up with just the right next new idea:

This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd.  It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

So, what do you in this brainstorming session?  You brainstorm.  But, we all know, brainstorming done poorly does not work.

Here is some genuinely important “how to brainstorm well” counsel from The Art of Innovation  (Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm) by Tom Kelley.

• Seven Secrets for Better Brainstorming…

1)  Sharpen the focus.

2)    Playful Rules. (e.g. – at IDEO:     Go for quantity. Encourage wild ideas. Be visual).


1.              Number your ideas.  (it creates quantity – it makes it easier to refer to specific ideas…)
2.              Build and Jump.
3.              The Space Remembers.
4.              Stretch your mental muscles.
5.              Get physical. (including:  big blocks; competitors products; use the body itself!)

• Six ways to kill a brainstormer
The boss gets to speak first (the boss gets to speak!)
Everybody gets a turn.
Experts only please.
Do it off-site.
No silly stuff.
Write down everything.

And, like with every other skill that you develop, you’ll have to do it a bunch — practice brainstorming, that is.  Remember the tried and true adage: “perfect practice makes perfect.”

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