Where do your good ideas come from?

Chris Reddin
Chris Reddin

I have been perplexed and fascinated for some time by the puzzlement of trying to figure out, “Where do good ideas come from?”  I know that my natural inclination when faced with solving a tough problem is to sit down at my computer and grind it out.  And yet, somehow, that never works. 

   My computer seems to hypnotize my brain into some kind of input-only mode where email and Facebook are of sole importance.  At my computer, I read and type, but I certainly don’t find myself generating innovative thinking.  I will also confess to having a significant penchant to call a meeting to look for a good way to solve problems.  I default into thinking that I should gather the team together and brainstorm.  But, goodness knows, that while putting a committee on a problem will generally find a solution that is palatable to everyone, it is rarely an inspired solution.

            Good ideas are more than just how problems are solved, they are how we move a business forward.  You may need a new product, a better ways to serve your customers or a program for how to improve your team’s performance; but what you really need are some good ideas.  These ideas are illusive; they are hard to find when we need them and abundant when we don’t.  So, is there a better way to come up with good ideas?  We all know we can, but can we do it reliably?  In recent years, research has been performed and several books have been published on this topic, so I thought I would share some of my learning and thoughts on the subject.

            People often credit their good ideas to an individual “Eureka!” moment.   No matter what the challenge, we can all identify with that light bulb moment when a flash of insight provides us with a good idea.  One of the most famous moments is the story of how Isaac Newton, relaxing under a tree, discovered gravity while observing an apple fall to the ground.  So what are the key factors that help us find those “Eureka!” moments?

            Steve Johnson, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explains that good ideas take time and collaboration.  He talks about the “slow hunch”, meaning that ideas time to evolve.  It can take two or three or twenty years for a really good idea to full form.  He also points out that good ideas come from the collision of smaller hunches.  One person might have half of a good idea, but the good idea is only born once that half-baked idea bumps into another half-baked idea and together they may real breakthrough.  Johnson supports the notion that ideas must be mingled and blended to create even better ideas.

            This spring a new book by Jonah Lehrer was published on the topic: Imagine: How Creativity Works.  Lehrer confirms my unfortunate observation that good ideas do not arrive on cue.  He points out that it is often only once we stop search for a solution, once we give up, that suddenly the clear, complete solution comes to us in a spark of inspiration.   He also notes that scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts.

            I don’t know about you, but my best ideas come to me in the in the middle of the trail run or in a discussion with friends over the campfire.  If I pull Steve Johnson’s points about time and collaboration and mix that with Jonah Lehrer’s ideas about relaxation and not thinking so hard, I can see why my good ideas come when they do.  I find that a relaxed state of mind is critical, but then some fuel must be added to fire the brain.  That fuel can be friends, art, nature or all of the above.  But, I know that if I step away from my desk and put myself in a “good” place, I find my mind opens up.  If I get in a positive mind-space and then mix in a good partner to bounce ideas off of, the good ideas flow.