When you think of innovation, you probably think of creating or building something new. But innovation rarely starts with designing, prototyping or sitting cross-legged on a mountain peak awaiting a serendipitous leap of imagination.
Creativity isn’t magic and ideas aren’t unicorns. To come up with ideas, you just need to ideate. Ideation is the process of using observations as well as internal and external inputs to generate insights that spark ideas which are new and useful.
Good ideas — the truly novel and useful ones — are always worth developing. They’re also rare. The tricky part is that when you first have an idea, it’s hard to know if it’s really a good idea or a bad idea.
To be consistently creative, I find it’s best to capture all my ideas. So, I keep a blank notebook with me where I write down ideas, regardless of whether they are good or bad. My notebook is small because new ideas can happen anywhere, and since I make my living from new ideas, I need to be ready to capture them anytime. And when one notebook fills up, I put it on a shelf and start a fresh one. Consistency is key and I’ve now got shelves of little black notebooks with a decades worth of ideas.
People ask me where my Good Ideas notebook is and that’s when I have to admit I don’t have one. It’s not because I don’t expect to ever have good ideas. Only keeping a Bad Ideas notebook is simply acknowledging the fact it’s hard to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea when it first appears. To resist judging my ideas prematurely, I just label them all “Bad”, before I even have them. This turns out to be a surprisingly effective trick to drive creativity.
Having a Bad Ideas notebook in my pocket seems to help my brain generate more ideas, which is why I suggest all innovators have one. Another reason is that, when I come up with an idea, I’ll often think — wow, that’s such a bad idea I’m not even going to write it down! But that’s the point. Innovators write down all our ideas — every single one — because it’s important to keep clearing the cruft out of our brains to make room for new ideas. Cognitive researchers have determined that most of us can only keep about 7 or 8 things in short-term working memory. And our mental sorting functions aren’t very good at figuring out what to delete and what to keep around. Of course, the best way to make sure you don’t lose a thought forever is to write it down. Oddly, one of the best ways to forget something is also to write it down, then just get busy thinking about other things.
How Ideas Flow
When I ideate I start with observations and inputs — the things I see and know about the world around me. The kinds of things newspaper headlines lament and customers, bosses and friends complain about or things I see that just don’t seem good enough and especially the stuff that annoys me. I write it all down.
When I review my Bad Ideas notebook, I look for concepts and ideas that stand out because they stand out as new or because they seem super useful. Ideas that eventually turn into my best innovations tend to emerge from concepts that were originally flawed in some important ways but also had certain aspects that were either highly novel, uniquely useful, or often, both. This is fundamentally how ideation works.
Your Creative Process
So, how do creative people ideate? Whether they are inventors, developers, artists, writers or designers, most creative people will tell you that ideation feels more like hard work than random serendipity. Creative professionals, if they are good at what they do, tend to use a rigorously structured process to generate, capture, develop, refine, select and polish their new inventions. You can do the same.
In your day-to-day work, in meetings, in your free time, you’re always making observations, hearing questions and running across unsolved problems, and you might be one of those people who’s always chewing on these things in the back of your mind. The trick is to drag those reluctant connections and insights into the light. Here’s a simple technique I’ve taught to thousands of innovators. Of course, you can always use your Bad Ideas book to capture ideas that spring from nowhere, but this is a focused way to intentionally generate more concepts and ideas.
You’ll need two pads of Post-it notes in contrasting colors, and you’ll need a timer.
- Silence your phone and shut down your computer. This step is absolutely necessary — you need complete focus in order to ideate successfully!
- Set your timer for 25 minutes. It’s valuable to set an end time for ideation, because it’s easier to focus your creativity when you know it won’t last forever.
- Start ideating by writing down new concepts, thoughts, ideas, observations or questions, one on each note. Sometimes a thought will be just one word, and sometimes it will fill the whole note. It can be vague or concrete. When you’ve written one note, peel it off and put it down on the desk or table in front of you. Try to let your mind wander a bit and leap randomly from thought to thought. This is serious daydreaming!
- Don’t self-evaluate the ideas as you’re writing them down. Just get them captured, even if they’re bad. You’re clearing your short-term mental working space to make room for new ideas.
- Continue writing new thoughts on new notes. If some ideas are related, you can stick them down in rows. If you have a new idea that’s not related to the others, start a separate row
- If you have a thought that’s not related to ideation — like, Pick up the dry cleaning — write that down on an alternate color Post-it note and put it to the side. Why do this? Because you want to clear your mind to keep it focused. You don’t want your to-do list or other distractions occupying your mind when you’re ideating. If you capture that interrupting thought on a different colored Post-it note it’ll stop blocking the more interesting ideas you want to coax to the surface.
- Continue ideating until your timer goes off. You can always extend your time if the ideas are still flowing.
- Capture the content of your Post-it notes. Transfer your ideas to your Bad Ideas book or your computer. Or, if the spatial relationships between the ideas on your notes is important, snap a photo with your phone.
Congratulations on completing your first focused ideation exercise! Starting an innovation is hard but it doesn’t have to be mysterious. And with the right techniques and practice, it’s something anyone can do.