The Process of Producing Ideas

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Translated by Núria Adell.

In 1960, James Webb Young was working as creative director of an agency in Chicago. One day, a client called him for an urgent meeting. When he arrived at his office, the client, who was responsible for a magazine’s sales team, said that he’d had a meeting with his entire team to discuss how to increase the sales of the advertising space of the magazine. After analyzing the selling methods of the competition, they were very impressed by the sales of Mr. Kobler, who was responsible for the advertising in American Weekly (a Sunday supplement). He didn’t sell advertising space; he sold ideas. Excited about this, they all agreed at the meeting that they’d do the same: they would also sell ideas. But the euphoria didn’t last long and the mental block arrived—how are ideas generated?

The client thought that the most appropriate person to explain how to generate ideas would be, of course, a creative director. And who better than James Webb, who was continually generating ideas for ads? Therefore, the purpose of the urgent meeting was for James Webb to quickly explain how to do this, so that the sales team wouldn’t have to wait for long…

James was amazed by the question. On the one hand, he had never heard such an absurd and naive question formulated so seriously before. But worst of all, he was absolutely unable to provide a helpful answer.

And this is how the book A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young started, with the aim of explaining the process we follow to generate new ideas.

A technique for producing ideas
A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

It’s a very short and easy-to-read book. I recommend it because, even though it was written many years ago,  I’m afraid the human mind hasn’t evolved much and so the technique of generating ideas is still the same. In fact, the conclusion of the book is that the generation of ideas is a process as well defined as the production of cars in an assembly line.

Car production line
The processes of a production line of cars must be very well defined.

According to the author, the formula for generating ideas is very simple: just know the magic formula, and voilà! you’ll never run out of ideas. I don’t understand why this topic is not a part of the school curriculum… Perhaps it’s because of the small nuance that the author adds—the formula is very simple but its application requires an effort that few are willing to undertake. Oh! I knew it sounded fishy… In any case, and since I found the book very interesting, I have decided to summarize the ideas made me think the most, and which hopefully will help you too.

The Pareto Theory

Pareto was the great Italian sociologist who wrote Mind and Society, and he believed that the world could be divided into two types of people: the speculators and the rentiers. The speculators are those who are always thinking about the possibilities of new combinations to improve something (this applies to any field, be it entrepreneurship, research, politics, etc.) The second group is formed by the conservatives, those with no interest in improving anything. They are unimaginative, live on rents, follow a routine, and are manipulated by the speculators.

According to Webb, to be able to generate some idea, the starting point is to belong to the first group and to have some interest in reconstructing this world a little. Having some interest already implies that you have the capacity to generate ideas. If that’s not your case, you don’t really need to continue reading the book.

The Learning Process

Assuming that we have overcome the starting point and that you have some capacity to generate ideas, in any type of learning process you must first be clear on the general principles before you learn the method. Therefore, the most valuable thing in the art of producing ideas is not knowing where to look for the idea, but understanding the general principles that are the origin of all ideas and to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced.

General Principles

There are two general principles, which are the source of the production of ideas:

  1. An idea is nothing more than a new combination of old elements.
  2. The ability to create new combinations depends on the ability to see the relationships between the old elements.

And in this ability to relate things that are initially viewed as unconnected is where minds differ the most. Some have it innately very developed and some less, but in any case, this ability can be cultivated, as we will see in the method. And the most interesting thing about the process is that those who do it innately actually follow the same method, even though they might not be aware of it.

The Method

Now that we have gone through the general principles, let’s see how to increase your ability to see the relationships between elements and to create new combinations. The method consists of 5 steps that are always executed in the same order:

1. Collecting the general and specific raw material

Do you remember the general principles? Generating an idea is not waiting for divine inspiration. The first step is, as it could not be otherwise, to systematically collect the maximum number of elements that will help you create new combinations (generate ideas). But what elements?

We have two types of elements: general and specific. Specific elements are all of those that give you information about what you want to improve. For example, in the world of advertising, in order to generate ideas we have to obtain as much information as we can about the product we want to sell and the people we want to sell it to. An in-depth analysis of these two elements is key to find the relationships that will lead to new ideas.

James gives as example a study that was carried out to sell soap. In this case, an in-depth study of the specific elements of the product was carried out: the soap, the skin, the hair, and how they relate to each other. This study turned into a book that was the basis of soap advertising for 5 years, multiplying by 10 the sales of soap during that period.

In the same way, it’s also important to collect general raw material. That is, you must have curiosity and interest in everything. Information about life, news, events of any kind, etc. is what will help you relate old elements and create new combinations. The more elements you’re able to store, the more combinations you can create, and more ideas you will have.

The first pragmatic difficulty that arises is precisely how to compile these ideas. James suggests that, for the specific elements, you use flash cards (keep in mind he wrote the book in the 60s), and for the general elements, a scrapbook similar to the one Sherlock Holmes had for his investigations. In fact, in the post I wrote on where to find information to generate new ideas, I already talked about how useful notebooks are. But hey, I guess if the author had written the book today, he might have been recommending a service like Evernote.

Guillermo del Toro's notebook
I love Guillermo del Toro’s notebook

Before moving on, I would like to emphasize that this first step is the most difficult one and the one we all skip most easily. But it’s empirically proven that it’s the most important one. And if not, ask any inventor how much information they analyzed before coming up with a great idea…

2. The process of mental digestion

If you’ve done your homework of collecting the raw material, the next step is to start chewing it. This step is a bit more complicated to explain since it’s entirely a mental process. It consists of taking one of the pieces of the elements compiled and trying to look at it from new perspectives, trying to properly understand its meaning. Then doing the same with another and trying to associate them or fit them as if you were solving a puzzle and you wanted that association to acquire a new meaning, a new entity.

In this phase, it’s quite normal for those around you start thinking that you’re losing your mind 😉.

During this part of the process, two things happen. The first is that partial ideas appear, possibly meaningless… But in any case, write them down. The second is that you may despair and get tired of this exercise very soon. But don’t! Continue at least until you’ve written something on small partial ideas.

When you reach the point of utmost despair after having tried hard to fit puzzle pieces together and realized that you can’t really get anything out of it, that’s when you’re done with the second step.

3. Disconnect and perform a stimulating activity

At this point, leave everything on one side and forget about this “meaningless” creative process. Go out and do any activity that stimulates your imagination and emotions. Go watch a movie, listen to music, read something, exercise… Remember that Sherlock Holmes, who knew this creative process well, dragged Watson to a concert when he was right in the middle of a case. Conan Doyle was very aware of the creative process.

4. The idea appears

After your mind’s had time to relax and disconnect from the problem, you’ll be able to generate ideas again. If you have performed the steps above, the fourth will come spontaneously, whether you’re taking a walk or in the shower or when you get up in the morning…

It’s important to be aware that ideas don’t arise while you’re continually obsessing about them. Ideas will come to your mind after having worked hard on the first two steps, and then rested and disconnected completely. This is the moment when your mind adopts a new perspective.

5. The last step

To complete the process of producing ideas, there is one last step James calls “the cold gray dawn of the morning after”. You have to take the idea you’ve had to the real world. And this is usually not as wonderful as it may seem at first. Be patient. Moreover, during this process of adapting to the world with real conditions and many other considerations that you hadn’t contemplated, you may come to the conclusion that perhaps your idea is not actually feasible.

In this last step, it’s normal that many ideas end up being discarded. In fact, James advises not to make the mistake of clinging to an idea just because it’s yours. Tell others about it and submit it to the criticism of other experts. In doing so, a good idea will surprisingly show its self-expanding qualities. It will stimulate and motivate those who see it and give you those details that you may have overlooked so that your idea can turn into a reality.

Some thoughts

In essence, this is the process of generating new ideas. No more, no less. You’ll see that if you think about the process of how you’ve generated a new idea before, you’ll surely recognize each of the previous steps.

Finally, the book ends with some reflections that are worth keeping in mind.

On the one hand,  it emphasizes the importance of compiling general elements. It insists that your education shouldn’t finish after college. Constantly expanding your experience and knowledge at all levels is very important in this process of generating ideas. Don’t get this wrong. Experience is a degree.

Another point that he highlights is that, behind each person who seems to have great ideas almost spontaneously, there’s been the process described above. What happens is that they have implemented it so often that their ability to produce ideas has become much faster.

Finally, James finishes his book talking about words. According to him, words are still ideas; ideas in a state of “suspended animation”. When you master words, ideas tend to revive. So he encourages you to hang on to words that will help you generate new ideas.

Now you know it: systematically apply the method I’ve explained and increase your ability to generate ideas. Easy, right?

Featured image by Josh Boot.

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Ruth obtained her PhD in Software Engineering at UPC and did a Master of Information Systems at DePaul University (Chicago). She has professional experience in the business world and at the University. Ruth has been University Lecturer at UPC, Vice-Dean for Corporate Relations of the Barcelona School of Informatics, and Associate Lecturer at ESADE. She specializes in software engineering and information systems management. She is also certified in Inboud Marketing.

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