In 1965 James Webb Young published a book called ‘A technique for producing ideas’. It’s a small and simple book. This blog is about what it says.
It talks about whether it is possible to identify a standard format for having ideas, so that ideas become a definite process, like an idea assembly line – in the same way that Henry Ford produced his Ford Model T.
Young starts on the premise that an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements. And that the key to an effective idea process is an individuals’ ability to search for relationships between elements that turn separate unconnected bits of knowledge into something greater.
Young identified a five-step process for having ideas.
- Gather raw material; this is an ongoing process and includes two types of material. Firstly specific material related to the problem you are trying to solve, for example getting under the skin of your customer and really understanding where the opportunities are for you to add value. Secondly general material, which could relate to anything at all, for example the topics that interest you or you are passionate about. It is the combination of the specific and general material that you then have to opportunity to combine into something new. An example of this is when Steve Jobs dropped out of college. It gave him the opportunity to drop into classes that he was interested in. He attended calligraphy classes that had no practical application at the time, but years later he was able to combine this element when developing the fonts and design of the Apple Macintosh. He talks about this in his 2005 commencement speech
- Order and catalogue your thoughts; Young talks about Sherlock Holmes who spend hours indexing and cross-indexing his thoughts in scrapbooks (remember it was 1965). You too could keep a scrap-book and there are now also many online tools to gather your raw material in one place, for example Pinterest, your own blog, Slideshare or even Twitter. Then seek relationships; deliberately look for relationships within your gathered raw material. Write your random thoughts down and build on those thoughts. Young describes it as ‘listening for meaning rather than looking’
- Incubation; if you are following the process, at this stage you are likely to have a hopeless jumble of random thoughts. This stage is about putting the whole thing out of your mind. Go and do something else, anything else. Something that stimulates your mind and emotions, have a nap, go for a walk, read a novel, go to the movies, go the gym or phone a friend. This is a definite and necessary stage that allows the unconsciousness mind to processes your thoughts.
- Out of nowhere the idea will appear; according to Young this is the way ideas come, after you have stopped straining for them and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search. The expression ‘sleep on it’ isn’t accidental. It is the process of your subconscious mind processing your thoughts
- Shaping and development of the idea; this is the really difficult bit. You have to be brave and put your idea out there. You have to take your little new-born idea out into the world of reality and develop it to fit external constraints. This is where good ideas can easily get lost. However, according to Young, a good idea has self expanding qualities, it stimulates those who see potential to add to it and possibilities in it that you have overlooked will come to light.
If ideas are a new combination of old elements it is important to gather raw material by constantly expanding your experiences. So get out from behind your desk and experience more. It’s important.
A version of this blog was first published at Lucyinnovation.