Where do good ideas come from?


I had lunch earlier this week with an old colleague. He currently works for a global business, gets paid well, but feels no joy in the work. He’d love to setup his own business, but doing what? He just doesn’t know.

We spoke about different ways to start the idea generation process. When I worked at the University of Dundee a few years ago, we did some work with Stanford’s BioDesign programme. It’s designed to create new businesses in the healthcare field and at the time their process had created over 120 new ventures.

The first stage in the BioDesign programme sees students being immersed in the clinical environment (Stanford University Hospital), where their only job is to identify problems. Over a six week period they are tasked with finding 200 ‘needs or problems’. Things that don’t work, where staff or patients are experiencing frustration or worse.

They are taught not to think about solutions, simply to find things that don’t work. In the Design Thinking model this is what we’d call the Discovery stage, where empathy is vital to understanding how others experience a situation.

So I shared this story over lunch. My friend loved it and has decided to start noticing things that don’t work and writing them down. I suggested creating a Google doc or Evernote file so that these ideas are captured and can be shared. You see, idea generation is rarely a solitary endeavour. It involves conversation, sharing ideas and collaboration. The more diverse the people you share them with the better.

The other thing I’ve done recently, with thanks to running coach and writer Mario Fraioli, is create something called a Spark File. Not only do I use it to capture needs or problems, but also interesting articles or ideas for blog posts.

The notion that you can’t be creative or come up with ideas is a fallacy – it’s just that many of us don’t know how. The creativity that we had as children has been taught out of us, so we think we can’t. But maybe we just need to be shown a different way?

How do you come up with ideas? Any tips you’d like to share?

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