What’s the big idea? What are you doing about it?

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

As the editor of a business journal who faces the recurrent task of writing columns, I often wonder: Where do good ideas come from? I wonder, in fact, every time another deadline looms.

Let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting I necessarily come up with any good ideas. I’ll let you be the judge of that. I’m simply acknowledging what most writers and those in other professions would rather not admit even to themselves. There’s this hopeful belief that somewhere out there in the universe awaits a limitless source of good ideas, like the mythical Pierian spring that inspires whoever drinks its waters. It’s just a matter of locating and tapping that source. Right? Then let the good times roll. Reality is far different, though, a vast desert where few novel thoughts survive.

And when good ideas occur, why do they sometimes come in like fog on little cat feet and sometimes suddenly show up as big as a replay on a Jumbotron?

That’s the problem with good ideas. They’re not only elusive, but also downright persnickety.

If good ideas are helpful in writing columns, they’re essential in operating businesses. Everything depends on providing better products and services and doing so faster and cheaper than the competition. There are exceptions in businesses that have developed a loyal customer base in doing the same thing — albeit extremely well — seemingly forever. But in a time of rapid change accelerated by quickly evolving technology, the rule poses an existential choice: innovate or die.

So where do good ideas come from?

I’ve got a few ideas about ideas. First, though, a caveat: I’m an observer of business, not an owner or manager for whom the stakes couldn’t be higher. Nonetheless, I’ve gained some insights from the owners and managers I’ve interviewed over the past 20 years.

Don’t force it. You can’t come up with good ideas by sheer force of will. Try it and see what happens. Go ahead. Open a file on your computer. Better yet, pull out a blank sheet of paper. It’s counter productive. The very definition of serendipity involves chance. Otherwise, we could all go out and buy some Serendipity-do and get on with business. Good ideas are more likely to occur when you least expect them. Think “Back to the Future” and how Dr. Emmett Brown slipped while hanging a clock in his bathroom, hit his head on the sink and conceived of the idea for the flux capacitor that makes time travel possible. Here’s another thing, though: Good ideas occur more frequently than most people realize. They just don’t recognize them at the time as good ideas.

Fix something. The best ideas solve problems, meet unmet needs and make the inconvenient convenient. Are you mad about something? Frustrated? Do you ask a question that begins, “Wouldn’t it be great if …” That’s a good starting point for coming up with good ideas. Necessity really is the mother of invention.

Make improvements. Good ideas don’t always reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it’s better to just tweak the wheel. Are there ways to improve an existing product or service? The admonition to build a better mousetrap often is attributed to American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson actually offered a broader perspective: “If a man has good corn or wood or boards or pigs to sell or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” There also are opportunities to adapt a product or service traditionally used in one industry to another industry and create in the process a new market.

Get it in writing. When good ideas occur, don’t dare waste the opportunity. Write them down if not immediately, then as soon as possible. Some people carry around a notebook and pen for this very purpose. Alternatively, use your smartphone. You might think you won’t forget a good idea, but it’s surprising how often that happens. Once you’ve written down your good ideas, keep them organized in some sort of central location whether that’s a computer file or paper file. Maintain a list of problems that need solving — something that’s become known as pain points. Go through your paperwork on a regular basis, keeping the good ideas and culling what in retrospect turn out to be bad ones.

Do something about it. The most important thing about good ideas isn’t where they come from, but what you do about them. Inventor Thomas Edison was right in describing genius as more a result of perspiration than inspiration. It’s so difficult to recognize opportunity because it looks exactly like hard work. One particularly successful entrepreneur I’ve repeatedly interviewed turned what was initially a gift for his wife into a new product, established a business and then sold that company. He told me more than once that lots of people come up with good ideas, but few ever act on them.

So what’s the big idea? More important, what’s your big idea? And what are you going to do about it? My good idea, by the way, was to write a column about good ideas. I hope I soon enjoy an opportunity to write a story about yours.