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The Art And Science Of Producing Ideas In 05 Easy Steps [Book Review]

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Jul 14, 2015

There is a now popular saying that: idea does not matter what matter most is implementation. Once I even wrote about it. But I was only half right. Idea still matters. Implementation is important but it comes late in the process. You need to have a good idea first because there are ideas that suck. For entrepreneurs and want to be entrepreneurs this is even more important. Once a wise woman said-the first step of starting any startup is having an idea. But only having idea does not work. You have to get idea that works.

A technique for producing ideas
A technique for producing ideas

But how do you get ideas let alone good ideas?

To find an idea that works is a capricious job. The value of a good idea has always been the same but they were never been available to everyone. In his brilliant work A Technique For Producing Ideas James Young Wood gives a realistic prescription on the process of generating ideas. The beauty of the technique by James does not lie in its uniqueness but in its conformity to modern science.

By the time, James wrote his book in 1939, the world has been changed fundamentally. We have come to know that everything is a remix and creativity is a collaborative process. But we could not use the technique usefully and succeed. Partly because- although we know creativity is an act of establishing connection among/between distantly related facts, devices, information etc but due to the lack of a workable manual that could help us to understand the critical combinatorial process of creativity we failed to connect things for good.

James has done this very act of creating hands on manual of idea generation process in 1939. James-an ad man by profession and a collaborative thinker by heart designs the five step process of producing creative ideas with a clear sense of applicability and effectiveness.

In the first chapter of the book James describes production of ideas as a structured process similar to that of production process of anything else that follows a standardized procedure. He wrote:

[…..] This has brought me to the conclusion that the production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

Being said that producing ideas is a standardized process, James goes on to teach us how this process of production of ideas works. Comparing the producing ideas with art James proposes a formula for training our minds to make it capable to get ideas.

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles; and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas. So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which ideas are produced; and how to the principles which are the source of all ideas.

Then in the Chapter ‘Combining Old Element’ he describes the most important aspect of producing ideas and proposes the now popular idea of combinatorial creativity that claims creativity is a remix and nothing comes out of nothing and new is a bad idea. Rather the truth about creativity and creating anything is that we need to understand connections among things and anything new sits on the old.

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations, depends largely on the ability to see relationships. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge, to others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. To a mind which is quick to see relationships several ideas will occur, fruitful for advertising, about this use of words as symbols.

In the later part of the book he prescribes a five step idea generation technique that can be followed and put into work effectively.

Step 1: Gathering Raw Materials

James wrote about building a large amount of mental treasure of information collected from diverse sources and backgrounds and subjects. The objective is to enable yourself to find connection among distantly related facts, bits of information and intersections that is normally impossible. Gathering raw materials is crucial for creating building block of combination and collaboration among facts. The most critical quality of a person who gathers best raw material is that: he let his curiosity takes him to places, known and unknown, and he takes interest in variety of things.

It is something like the process which was recommended to De Maupassant as the way to learn to write.”Go out into the streets of Paris," he was told by an older writer, "and pick out a cab driver. He will look to you very much like every other cab driver. But study him until you can describe him so that he is seen in your description to be an individual, different from every other cab driver in the world.” Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested-from, say, Egyptian burial customs to Modern Art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.

Step 2: The Mental Digestive Process

Gathering idea is just the beginning. Here James proposes a very scientific method that we only know very recently to be true. Our minds work in a very strange way and you can’t push it to do a sort of creative thing. Rather truth is our subconscious mind is way powerful a weapon to deny and not take help of it while producing ideas. James wrote after gathering raw materials one must digest those materials in order to transform them into useable elements.

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them, as it were, with the tentacles of the minds. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle. As you go through this part of the process two things will happen. First., little tentative or partial ideas will come to you. Put these down on paper. Never mind how crazy or incomplete they seem: get them down. The second thing that will happen is that, by and by, you will get very tired of trying to fit your puzzle together. Let me beg of you not to get tired too soon. The mind, too, has a second wind. Go after at least this second layer of mental energy in this process.

Step 3: Do Something Else

The genius lies n the ability to be able to not try that hard. Instead get yourself involved into something else. Have fun. Take a walk. But don’t think about ideas. Thinking constantly about the problem or the subject matter blocks the path of idea. James prescribes, stop thinking for a while. Let your mind work on its own way. Let magic happen inside when busy with other stuff. Better, let magic happen in its own way and don’t interrupt it with external efforts. When you are done with above three steps perfectly, then the next step will happen without doubt.

Step 4: The Eureka Moment

You'll find when you least expect it. The idea seldom shows up when you want it more. Rather it emerges when you stop thinking.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it - while shaving, or bathing or most often when are half awake, in the morning. It may wake you in the middle of the night. 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.

Step 5: The Final Shaping And Development Of This Idea To Practical Usefulness

In this section James’s prescription seems a lot like the idea of market testing. You need to take your idea out to test in real world.

In this stage you have to take your little idea out into the world of reality. And when you do you usually find that it is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it. It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost.

James wrote instead of becoming a passionate protector of our ideas we should let it go into the world where it actually needs to work and see whether it can work or not. In the process we will draw feedback, suggestion and all these will ultimately make the idea itself a better one than the one we came across at the beginning,

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. 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.

A Technique For Producing Ideas is short but a breathtaking gem and a treasure trove on how to generate ideas. While reading the book it seems that the way of getting ideas is so simple and obvious that nobody can ignore it. If you are going to read anything this month I would strongly recommend this.

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Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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