In 1939, James Webb Young worked at an advertising agency (think Mad Men, but before TV...), when a co-worker walked into his office and said:
"You have produced a lot of advertising ideas. Just how do you get them?"
James initially thought this was a joke, but quickly realized it wasn't. The man standing in front of him was serious, and the agency was waiting to learn how to generate more and better ideas.
A similar thing happened to me 71 years later, in 2010, when one of the company's directors followed me to my office after I presented my latest idea and flat out told me that my idea was accidental!
James Young's conclusions were published in his 59-page classic book, A Technique for Producing Ideas: the five-step model anyone can use to be more creative in business and in life!
My model, bearing some resemblance to Young's, is described as a four-step formula.
Step 1: Collect old ideas
Young suggested that the first step for producing new ideas was to fill your head with old ideas. Collect as many ideas as possible. Broad and narrow, superficial and deep, generic and specialized. I read Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and more. I watch TED and other interesting videos I can find on YouTube while on my treadmill every morning. Some of the ideas you would capture are problems. Some are solutions. Always remember that one man's problem is another man's solution, so you don't have to categorize them as such.
The ideas you fill your head with don't really have to be old. I like to think of Science fiction movies as "the art of the possible." Using camera tricks and computer graphics allowed studios to generate things that defy nature, physics, and everything we know. Here is a thought: science fiction defies what we know today. They show what can become reality tomorrow.
Step 2: Incubate, Procrastinate
One day in 1991, I was in the middle of writing a program for an electronic system I had developed for the company. Everything was going well, and the program grew more and more complex. One morning, I added a certain feature that simply refused to work. It didn't matter what I did, I couldn't get the damn system to respond to a certain parameter. I spent the next 12 hours undoing almost everything I wrote and rebuilding it. I developed debug code only to find my bug, but all to no avail. I just couldn't find what I did wrong.
I would probably have worked through the night to solve it, if I wasn't supposed to meet my girlfriend (my wife for the last 23 years) to see a movie at 9:30. It was already 8:00, so I had to stop what I was doing. I must admit that there was a moment when I considered calling her and blowing off that date. I know--I'm a geek. But I couldn't let this problem win. It was driving me crazy.
Eventually I left the office, and met my girlfriend to see the movie. To this day she still remembers that 30 minutes into the middle of the movie I whispered in excitement: "I got it!" Not sure I actually whispered.
The next morning I started the day by testing what I thought the problem was. Twenty minutes later I realized I was right. My mind had to be taken away from what I had been working on for 12 hours straight, and into something completely different (the movie) for me to solve it.
Step 4: Take a Shower
After you collected old ideas as proposed in this chapter, your brain could now combine them into new ideas. Guaranteed. The question is only when. The final two steps in this 4-step process are required. You must allow your brain to do certain things that would cause it to start combining those old ideas, in what would appear to be a very natural way. It would seem accidental. Have you been paying attention so far? For example, have you noticed that I skipped step 3 and jumped directly to step 4? No, it wasn't a mistake. Step 4 is the "aha!" moment. It is your "Eureka!" Step 3 would make step 4 more powerful, and more immediate. But in order for step 3 to make sense, I must first explain step 4. OK, enough conjecture. Let's get to it.
Step 4, simply put, is: take a shower. No, seriously. Have you ever thought about what was Newton doing when the apple fell on his head? That's right--he was sitting under a tree. Let's just call it relaxing. Where was Archimedes when he realized that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged (also known as the "Archimedes Principle") and shouted "Eureka!"? That's right--he was taking a bath. Showers were not common during the third century BC.
James Young said that:
"It will come to you when you are least expecting it--while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night."
But he didn't explain why. Here is why.
In a 2016 article, Neil Stevenson of IDEO described how Neuroscience was helping in understanding creativity in people. He underwent a brain MRI scan (voluntarily) to help in research done by the Imagination Institute, which claims that the brain is much more complicated than that over-simplified left/right model. The frontal lobes are responsible for our executive, organizational functions, and in fact separate us from our ancestors (our eyebrows are higher than theirs due to the development of the frontal cortex with evolution). Whenever you exercise your organizational/executive skills, your frontal cortex "lights up."
However, the study shows, instead of searching for areas that "light up" for creative functions, the focus was on the neural networks that operate when the executive functions are not utilized, during daydreaming and relaxation. "Creativity is a mode, not an identity," said Stevenson. Instead of seeking to exercise your "creativity muscles" you should learn how to shut down your executive frontal cortex and let yourself daydream. This is why your best ideas occur in the shower, or while resting.
So why did I skip step 3?
Step 3: Trigger
Can you tell the difference between the colors Aqua, Cyan, Teal, and Turquoise? The answer is: hardly, if at all. They look very much alike. Even if you put them next to each other, you would still be hard-pressed to tell them apart. But put Aqua next to Maroon and you could definitely see the difference. Having your brain constantly in "neutral" would not be as effective as changing your brain's activity level dramatically. Your brain would generate more ideas if it's relaxing immediately following a high-intensity, high-focus brain activity.
This is why I changed the order of steps 3 and 4. You had to first understand why ideas occur when your brain is resting in step 4. Now you can learn how to enhance step 4 by inserting step 3--an intense activity.
Perform high-intensity, completely unrelated activities on a regular basis. For me, it was flying full-size airplanes as a pilot, riding fast motorcycles, and more recently--flying radio controlled airplanes, some of which fly faster than 130 miles per hour. James Young alluded to this step when he said:
"Drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story."
Wasn't that exactly what happened to me when, after 12 hours of trying unsuccessfully to solve my software problem, I found the solution in 30 minutes, once I started watching a movie with my girlfriend?
A relaxing activity (step 4) following an intense one (step 3) is when your brain would start making those connections and generate new and better ideas. This is your serendipity moment. Make sure you have a way to capture those ideas...
Now you understand the process of Combinational idea generation that takes place in your brain. You know how to make it work in a deliberate way. It is not as simple and as immediate as flipping a switch, but it works, and science (mainly neuroscience) explains it.
(Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from my latest book: Un-Kill Creativity: How Corporate America can out-innovate startups.)
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