Invention, discovery and the role of collaboration

bulb_smThe latest post on Carl Knibbs’s blog is a great practical guide to generating product ideas. This got me thinking about the nature of ideas and invention.  People tell me that I am creative, that I surprise them with ideas, that I say funny and unexpected things.  I’m an inventor and have a patent to prove it.  Despite this I rarely feel like I am the source of an idea.

So where do ideas come from?  My personal experience is that they come almost entirely from outside; from books that I read, people I talk to, things that I see.  Sometimes an idea comes immediately, sometimes much later.  For example, I am currently reading Bill Buxton’s excellent Sketching User Experiences and I’m really struggling to get through it because it keeps prompting all sorts of interesting ideas that set my mind off in different directions.

When I don’t get an immediate reaction to some stimulus I need to give my brain’s amazing subconscious processing a chance to find the connections that will generate an idea.  How often have you had an idea come to you, or discovered the solution to a problem, at night?  I find it can happen at other times too; staring at the sky, mowing the lawn or just day dreaming.

Now that I’ve had that idea, I have a real problem in telling you where it came from.  The synaptic process might have been mine, but what about all those stimuli?  Michelangelo believed that every stone had a form within it, and that the work of sculpting was simply a matter of chipping away all that was not a part of the scuplture.  For me the process of generating ideas is much like this, you just have to look at things in the right way, and you will see an idea that has been hiding there all along.

So, back to Carl’s post, what can we do to encourage the ideas that are the lifeblood of future products?  Here are some additional thoughts, a personal manifesto for increasing the number of ideas I, and those around me, have.

  1. Be free with your ideas.  That wacky joke may connect with another idea in someone else’s head and create something really exciting and new.
  2. Hang around others who are similarly free with their ideas too, be part of that creative melting pot.
  3. Give yourself lots of stimulation, talk to people, read books, look at art, listen to music, but make sure it is new to you, outside your discipline, outside your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to call this “work”.  Then…
  4. Give yourself lots of time to do that subconscious processing, and don’t be afraid to call this “work” either.
  5. Be playful in your thoughts.  Find funny associations between things, words particularly.  Pick a random object and find as many ways to link it to your problem as possible.

If you want further inspiration look at  Roger von Oech’s A Whack on the Side of the Head and  A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, or dip into Edward de Bono’s work.

In response to a small boy’s question about what he really did if he did not draw Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney said: “Sometimes, I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another, and gather pollen, and sort of stimulate everybody.”  Be that bee.  Pick up stimulation where ever you can find it and distribute it freely.  Some of it may flower.

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One Response to Invention, discovery and the role of collaboration

  1. Carl says:

    Thanks for the mention Chris, really enjoying reading along!

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