What if you could explain the way ideas are born?
What if there were an actual process you could follow over and over again to consistently come up with creative solutions to problems, new marketing ideas, product ideas and more?
According to advertising legend James Webb Young, producing an idea can be as systematic as building a Ford.
Webb Young wrote a short book in the 1940s called A Technique for Producing Ideas.
He says he started thinking about how we come up with ideas after an advertising manager for a magazine told him he no longer wanted sales staff to sell space in the magazine. Instead – he wanted them to sell ideas.
The problem was – this guy had no clue how to get his staff to start coming up with ideas. He went to Webb Young hoping the advertising genius could explain his methods for coming up with ideas.
At first, Webb Young found the request almost laughable. But he was also intrigued. Here’s what he discovered after a lot of deep-thinking, observation and research…
Webb Young defines an idea as “a new combination of old elements.”
We often describe the creative process as thinking outside the box. It’s important to remember that there is a box in the first place. Getting outside that box is certainly part of coming up with an idea. But so is understanding the box you’re in, taking the box apart, re-building the box in a different way and maybe using pieces from a completely different box too.
I like to compare creative thinking to the way little kids play with their Legos.
Remember how you’d get a new Lego set and you’d follow the instructions to build the exact castle, spaceship or racecar pictured on the box?
Now I’m sure there are some kids who kept their Legos completely organized – not just by color or size – by the actual set. I never met any kids like that.
Most of us would finish building the set, and then all the pieces would go into a giant bin full of all our Lego blocks. From then on – we’d go to the huge box of Legos and build our own creations.
We got little pieces of ideas from the sets we bought at the store. We combined space Legos with pirate Legos to make space pirates. But the end results were always unique.
The idea-generating process happens naturally all the time. However, you can also identify the method your mind follows and make it happen manually. As Webb Young explains, it’s happening in your head whether you realize it or not.
“In other words, that there is a technique for the use of the mind for this purpose; that whenever an idea is produced this technique is followed, consciously or unconsciously; and that this technique can consciously be cultivated, and the ability of the mind to produce ideas thereby increased.“
The Five Steps for Getting a Great Idea
1. Gathering Raw Material
The first mistake people make is they sit down at their computer or a brainstorming meeting and just star trying to come up with ideas. Ideas will not come to you unless there is a seed of an idea already in your head. That seed comes from research.
Every good copywriter, marketing executive, small business owner and sales representative knows you have to do your research if you want to be effective. It seems like common sense, but too often we skip this step.
You need to understand as much as possible about…
- Your Product or Service: How can you come up with ideas if you don’t know enough about it?
- Your Customer: How can you persuade someone if you know nothing about who they are?
Not that long ago, you had to flip through a card catalog at the library to do your research. Today we’re living in the Information Age. The internet gives us a mind-boggling amount of material on just about any topic. You have no excuse for failing to gather information.
The same goes for understanding your customer. If you want to use social media to help you make sales – use it to better understand your customers needs, fears, desires and lives in general. That’s what makes social media a powerful tool.
You should also be thinking beyond just the surface of who your customers are. They are more than just women ages 40 to 55, or Millenials, or senior citizens. The more specific you get about who they are – the better your ideas for them will be.
Besides specific material that is directly related to your idea, Webb Young stressed the effectiveness of general material (think general knowledge) as well. In fact, he re-emphasizes it in the after-thoughts of his book.
You can gather general material from anywhere. Watching television, visiting an art museum, attending a conference, eating a new sandwich. The trick is to diversify the kind of content you absorb. The best ideas often come when you can find connections between seemingly unrelated things.
If you’re a criminal lawyer who only reads books about law, or an advertising exec who only visits marketing blogs, you’re keeping your brain inside of one box.
The more fascinated you are with learning new things, and the more unique life experiences you have, the better you’ll become at coming up with amazing ideas. That’s because you’ll have more in your “mind tank” to draw from.
2. Working it Over in Your Mind
Once you’ve researched and absorbed material related to the idea you’re trying to come up with, the next two steps are kind of like digesting the idea. It all happens inside your head.
Step two is basically chewing on the material before you let your mind digest.
Webb Young describes it as letting the “tentacles of your mind” play with all that information. This is when you start looking for relationships between various facts. How does all the different material connect?
It’s like you’re trying to put together a puzzle. Before you know it, you’ll start getting little fragments of ideas – sort of like putting together the edges of a jigsaw puzzle first.
Webb Young calls these little ideas a foreshadowing of the big idea to come. Others might call this the brainstorming process. You can do that in your own head as well as in a group. A brainstorm of one – so to speak.
Webb Young says you should keep working the material in your mind until you are nearly mentally exhausted. He adds that the human brain, like the body, often gets a second wind. So don’t give up too soon.
3. The Incubation Stage
When you’ve finally reached that stage when you’re brain is wiped out – it’s time to completely forget about it!
Now you let all of that material and the connections you made with it marinate in your mind. You let your unconscious do the work for awhile.
This is where the concept of “sleeping on it” comes from. And it’s been proven to work.
The great inventor Thomas Edison took naps to help generate his ideas. Remember – your brain keeps working while you sleep. Other historical figures who took advantage of power naps include Albert Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill and JFK.
Besides letting an idea incubate in your sleep – Webb Young recommends turning to what stimulates your emotions. Listen to the music you love, watch a new movie, take a walk in the country or just randomly surf the internet. Do practically anything except think about it.
Leave the problem alone, and the glorious feeling of Step 4 will come…
4. Birth of the Idea – The ‘Aha!’ Moment
Where are you when a really good idea appears?
It’s usually not in the brainstorming meeting your manager sets up. It’s not when you’re sitting at your computer trying to push out the idea like a constipated turd. It often comes when you least expect it.
While you’re still half-dreaming in the morning. While you’re playing fetch with the dog. While you’re trying to push out a constipated turd.
Webb Young says that ‘Aha!’ moment – the moment you exclaim Euraka! – will come after you’ve allowed yourself to rest and relax from the search for your big idea.
Jonah Lehrer, author of a new book on creativity called Imagine, says most of his ideas come while he’s taking a hot shower. When I need to get to that breakthrough moment, I often just pace around the office or my house until it surfaces.
Giving birth to a natural idea is kind of like giving birth to a baby. You’re never exactly sure when the big moment is going to come…even if you try to induce the birth of your idea.
5. Development for Practical Usefulness
Webb Young calls his final step “the cold, gray dawn of the morning after.” Yeesh.
This is when you have to put your idea out into the real world, decide if it’s going to work and what needs to be changed. Too many ideas get abandoned at this stage. That’s because creative people often fall deeply in love with their own ideas. They can’t let go of certain things.
In the final step, you need to open your idea up to criticism. You need to get the opinions of other people. You need a reality check.
It’s tough to realize that your big ideas isn’t the magical miracle you thought. But that doesn’t mean it’s garbage either!
Step five is about going back to that box you started thinking outside of, and figuring out how you’ll make the idea work. This requires patience, collaborators you can trust and some thick skin.
Remember that ideas can constantly grow, change and improve. As James Webb Young puts it…
“You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.”
Read it for Yourself!
Want to learn even more about James Webb Young’s idea generating process? You can find a free PDF of A Technique for Getting Ideas at advancedhiring.com.
How do you think more creatively? When do you get your big ideas? Leave a comment and tell us more!
Image Credit: Flickr the idealist