Percolate comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to put through a sieve’. Something that percolates filters through something else, just as small particles pass through a sieve.
It can also mean, to prepare (coffee) in a percolator, to become lively or effervescent or to spread gradually.
I think percolating is an under valued skill. I don’t mean making coffee or sieving things. I mean allowing our thinking to percolate. Percolate on a problem. Filter a situation through different perspectives. Develop and build on ideas gradually. Think. Be excited by the process.
I help individuals and teams think differently in order that they can make more impact. A key part of this is helping them create space to think. To percolate.
When it comes to producing new ideas percolation is key
In 1965 James Webb Young published a book called ‘A technique for producing ideas’. It’s a small and simple book. When it comes to producing new ideas percolation is key.
The book talks about whether it’s 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.
1. Gather raw material; this is an ongoing process and includes two types of material. Firstly, specific material related to the problem you’re trying to solve, for example gathering and analysing customer insight 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, or percolate on to develop 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 (I’d argue he percolated) and he was able to combine this element when developing the fonts and design of the Apple Macintosh. He talked about this in his 2005 commencement speech.
2. Order and catalogue your thoughts: Young talks about Sherlock Holmes who spent hours indexing and cross-indexing his thoughts in scrapbooks (remember it was 1965). You too could keep a scrapbook, and there are now also many online tools to gather your raw material in one place. Although I do believe, for me, there is something important and powerful about using our hands write, sketch and physically create something rather than typing into a device. 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.’ I’d describe it as a form of percolation.
3. Incubation: if you’re following the process, at this stage you’re 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 cinema, go the gym or phone a friend. This is a definite and necessary stage that allows the unconsciousness mind to processes your thoughts. This is also a form of percolation!
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 percolating your thoughts.
4. 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. This is where other people percolate with you.
For all these elements of having ideas percolation is present. To percolate we need time and space for ideas to spread, evolve and develop. The rush of coming up with ideas in a workshop isn’t necessarily realistic and certainly doesn’t work for everyone. If ideas are a new combination of old elements, it is important to gather raw material by constantly expanding your experiences, making connections, and allowing regular time and space to percolate.
Allowing space in your diary is not a nice to have. It’s an essential part of powerful thinking, the sort of thinking that is not doing what you’ve always done, but the type of thinking that has the potential to make a greater impact.
As with everything, the theory is easier than the action. Start by putting regular percolation time in your diary. Start small. There’s some more tips on making space here.
PS I know you’re going to ask – what about if your percolation is actually procrastination? My thoughts and practical tips on this are coming soon.