Thursday, 17 May 2012

Where do ideas come from?

Image by chanpipat from
Creativity is easier said than done.  Where do creative people get their inspiration from? Where do ideas come from? When is an idea a good idea, and when is it fantasy?  In business terms, how do you identify an idea that has 'legs' or potential to become a sound business?

Much has been written on the creative process and how to become entrepreneurs. Much comes down to luck.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book 'Outliers', points out how the biggest names in technology: Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer (founders of MicroSoft), Steve Jobs (from Apple) and Scott McNealy (from Sun Microsystems) were all born between 1954 and 1956 and, through the luck of location and access to computer facilities at a young age when most could only dream of using a computer, were able to get large amounts of experience (10,000 hours according to Gladwell's rule).  Had they been older they probably wouldn't have had access to the tools to get that valuable experience - any younger and someone else might have got their first.

However, luck suggests there is nothing one can do about 'ideas' and creativity.  A quote often attributed to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Goldwyn via Mark Twain and Thomas Edison says:
"I'm a firm believer in luck, and I've found that the harder I work, the luckier I get."
It isn't just about hard work either.  As Seneca, the Roman philosopher from the 1st century AD, said:
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
So if one wishes to take these quotes as guidelines for achieving success, one has to work hard and be ready to embrace new opportunities.  If one takes that a little further, identifying opportunities is no easy task. It involves risk. It involves change.  The risk averse are unlikely to be successful entrepreneurs, but there is no reason to think they might not be highly successful corporate executives.

Coming back to the issue of ideas, again much has been written about where ideas come from.  Online guru Seth Godin has also posed the question and produced a list of 20 points that might help.

Steven Johnson wrote a whole book on the topic (although, focusing on "Where good ideas come from") which he's presented at TED:

Johnson has essentially summarised that which many others have said many times.  Steve Jobs said:
"Creativity is just connecting things."
A very wise woman once said "Ideas come from connections."  Jared Diamond's book on the fates of human societies: "Guns, Germs and Steel" connects all the dots of human development to show how luck and connections were fundamental to some societies developing more technology, infrastructure and art at a faster rate than others.  Luck in terms of the natural resources available where they were (including minerals and beasts of burden) and connections in terms of being able to exchange ideas and technologies ("I'll swap my axe for your spear") with other societies.

In conclusion, therefore, one should not think that one needs complete isolation to think, meditate and that an idea will materialise, fully formed, in one's mind.  The mind will reach that idea through a long line of connections.  The thoughts might rest on a window, and from there one might think of the glass in the window, the sand that makes the glass, the liquid nature of glass, the liquid falling on the glass (rain) and eventually to the irony of liquid protecting us from liquid.  Or with more knowledge of the chemical properties of glass, one might be able to connect the dots and create a window that is more liquid in hot weather providing a cooling effect, and more solid in cold.  Clearly, I am not an engineer...

So if you need an idea, connect your subject matter to others.  See how other societies live. See how other specialists work in their field.  Can their knowledge be useful in your field? Can yours be useful in theirs? Connect to people. Connect your business to others. Network.  Through connections, ideas will flow.

Surely therefore, Google+ and Facebook, and LinkedIn, and Twitter) will generate endless ideas...right?  Just as soon as everyone stops talking about Justin Bieber...