Where do ideas come from?

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Some people believe the stork brings them, but that’s not the real story. Ideas are actually born and just like humans and most animals, the initial seed of an idea comes from two different parents.

A few years ago there was a commercial on TV that showed a truckload of peanut butter crashing into a truckload of chocolate and implying that this was the genesis of the very popular Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. That’s a great visualization of the process of creating ideas.

 Two disparate things crash together in your mind and voila! -- a brand new idea is created. When I was an undergraduate advertising major, the university didn’t allow us to minor in only one subject. They wanted us to take a variety of courses from many other disciplines to get a smattering of information about a broad range of topics. They felt this was the best preparation for a career devoted to creativity. Though I didn’t realize it until much later, this was really just a liberal arts approach that had more marketplace pizzazz.

 So what do you do when you need some fresh ideas? There are several well-known approaches. Many are derived from the technique called “brainstorming” which was first invented by Alex Osborne (the “O” of BBDO). You may have heard of Synectics or using Creative Consumers or going on a creative retreat.

 If you’re in serious need of a slew of new product ideas, it’s probably worth it to invest the not-inconsiderable sum in a professionally led creativity retreat. Here are some guidelines for choosing one of these services:

 1.         Leaders What training have the leaders had? A good ideation session should be led by qualified individuals who have taken formal training in ideation techniques. Beyond that, it may be helpful for you to find people who have experience in your category or related fields.

2.         Time Don’t skimp on the time. Serious creativity takes time. If the session is going to last less than 2 full days, the return on your investment is likely to be compromised.

3.         Location You don’t have to go to a ritzy resort (especially since you will be spending many, many hours thinking hard), but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can save money by doing it in your own offices. You must set the scene for creativity and it should be somewhere where people can relax, dress down, be comfortable and play.

4.         Exercises  Ask the leaders for some examples of the kinds of exercises they routinely build into their designs. You should find a range of types of exercises – group, pairs, individuals; written, oral, silent; word-oriented, image-oriented. Just doing a shout-it-out exercise again and again is fatiguing and quickly becomes counter-productive.

5.         The Team  You should have a team of at least 8 to 10 people and probably no more than 16 to 18.  Be sure to have a mix of types of people – men and women, young and old, various work disciplines. Many times, the facilitator can arrange to have some “plants” or trained brains added to the ideation team – people the facilitator has worked with who are particularly creative and work well with others. A different variation of this approach is to have at least one session with some genuine experts from very divergent fields – a rocket scientist, a performance artist, an historian, etc.

Of course, maybe you don’t need quite so many ideas or you have a smaller problem and no one to call on. Don’t despair – you can even do one-person brainstorming. And smaller problems can be effectively solved with shorter ideation sessions. Just make sure you use the same discipline that you would on a big, expensive retreat for any session dedicated to new ideas - turn off the phones and emails, allow space (physical and mental) to be creative, try a few different types of exercises. The return on this investment of time and space will surprise you.