How to have great ideas

Forget those eureka moments. Brilliant ideas don't usually come from a creative genius struck by the muse while languishing in the bathtub. Instead, they're the product of a systematic process, thorough research and lateral thinking. Here's how to do it.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Create the right atmosphere

'You can train people to be more engaged and curious,' explains Matt Kingdon, chairman of innovation company WhatIf!. 'But the issue is can you create an environment in which ideas aren't shot down?' Don't stymie nascent ideas by saying 'we've done that before and it didn't work'. Don't raise your eyebrow when someone is brave enough to proffer a thought. And don't ask for too much proof of how much money their fledgling idea will make when it's still a confused tangle of thoughts. It's also easy to be self-limiting by making assumptions about your own capabilities and your boss's expectations. 'This is very dangerous,' warns Kingdon, 'and it's part of the job of senior executives to make it really clear that they will listen to ideas.'

Understand the business problem

'Before you leap, you've got to be absolutely clear what the real problem or opportunity is,' says Charlie Dawson, founding partner of The Foundation, which advises businesses on how to grow. The best way to do this is by asking five whys: why is this a problem? Why has that happened? And so on until you get to the heart of the matter. A thorough dissection will also mean you are attempting to solve the real issue and not just a symptom.

And forget blue-sky thinking - the sky is infinite and massive and therefore daunting. 'Creativity loves constraints,' says Kingdon. It's much easier to think of solutions when you have tight direction, so give yourself or your team boundaries.

Put yourself in others' shoes

'It's not just about creating ideas - that's self-indulgent,' says Paul Brazier, executive creative director at ad agency AMV BBDO. 'Think how a client might respond.' Real breakthroughs come when you put yourself in the position of your customers or clients. 'That's when you understand the real need of the people you are serving,' explains Dawson. Speak to your customers or, even better, become one for the day so that you can view things from their perspective. Remember, you can't solve problems at a distance.

Learn from others

Once you've got a good understanding of the problem, break it down into smaller parts and work out how each of these can be addressed. It's important at this stage to get inspiration from businesses in other industries that have faced similar problems. Get them to tell you their story and what solutions they found. Why? There may be useful parallels to be drawn; small parts of a jigsaw that can eventually be pieced together. And you might find a role model to guide you on your way. Says Dawson: 'The definition of creativity is often putting two things together that you wouldn't normally.'

Allow time to piece the jigsaw together

After all your exploratory efforts, it's time to bring the team together and go through everything systematically.

'The trick is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts,' says Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From. Instead, great ideas are much more likely to happen during a collaborative effort when someone else's criticism will make you realise that your ingenious suggestion is actually a waste of time or a half-formed idea to be knocked into shape.

Have two separate discussions, ideally on two separate days, advises Dawson. On the first day, think about everything you could do. On the second, work out the things you are going to do.

Be ruthless and focused

Ultimately, the only ideas worth having are the ones that turn into real innovations.

A common problem for many businesses is that there are just too many of them, which distract people. You have to start limiting the number of ideas you will pursue by making a fast judgement on what you have. Start by asking hard questions and questioning every assumption. With experience, you will be able to strip down an idea in a second. It's also helpful to make a concept real by running some quick research, working out the costs or getting a model made.

And remember, all ideas need constant iteration to succeed. 'Making ideas happen is 1% idea and 99% sweating it,' says Kingdon.

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