Where do you get your best ideas? Most people say in the shower, while jogging or taking a walk– not at their desk. Why can’t we simply turn on the idea factory when we need it?

This is part one in a series on creativity and innovation. In this article, I will explore where ideas come from and what we can do to increase the amount of good ideas we have.

Ideas don’t just happen

Often, we remember the place where we had an idea but we forget all the prior work and influences that led to the great insight in the shower. In The Myths of Innovation, author Scott Berkun demystifies the belief that good ideas come out of the blue. Innovations or flashes of insight are the result of a process that draws on prior knowledge, skills, and lots of trial and error.

Think of a great idea that you and your team had during your last project. What knowledge, experience and influences was this idea built on?

A new idea is hard to find

It is difficult to come up with a truly original idea – something that no one else has thought of before.

Try this with friends or colleagues: Imagine you have founded a new company around a product or service. Brainstorm an original name for your product or company. Now put the term into Google or other search engines and see what comes up. The chances are high that someone has already thought of the name.

You don’t have to be original to be creative

The good news is that creative ideas build on other ideas. Everyone is doing it in every field – putting existing ideas together in new ways.

Practice combining ideas by trying the “Yes, and…” exercise with your team. The rules are simple. One person starts by mentioning an idea. Others contribute by saying “Yes, and…” and then adding to the idea. This exercise helps people learn to listen carefully and build on the ideas of others without criticizing. Keep going as long as you can. Make sure that you have someone who is recording the flow of ideas.

Diversity spices up a good brainstorming

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness points out that we are more alike than we think. You should expect people in your field and department to think like you. After all, you went through a similar training and are shaped by a particular department culture. One of the oft-quoted rules of brainstorming is to encourage wild ideas. This is difficult to do with a group of people with similar professional backgrounds.

The ideas that you generate will only be as good as the people that you invite to your session. Ideas from a diverse group will be more varied and the potential to uncover a real gem is greater. Of course, you will also generate a lot of ideas that don’t hold water. That’s ok. The purpose of brainstorming is to generate lots of ideas. Evaluating and selecting ideas for further exploration will come later.

Try this. To encourage wild ideas, invite people from different departments or the customer to your next brainstorming session. Help them prepare for the brainstorming by providing them with a description of the issue or opportunity that you will explore.

Challenge assumptions to generate new ideas

Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean that is the best way to proceed. Innovations almost never happen without challenging and overcoming common assumptions. Consider the following example: Drs. Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren became convinced through their research that stomach ulcers were caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Their results challenged the existing assumption that bacteria could not survive in the acidic stomach environment. Old assumptions die hard. To prove his point, Dr. Marshall drank a petri-dish full of the bacteria to demonstrate that stomach ulcers could be caused by H. pylori. Marshall and Warren were not working in a vacuum. The timeline relating to the discovery that peptic ulcer disease is caused by H. pylori shows there was much evidence in place that supported their hypothesis. In 2005, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, “who with tenacity and a prepared mind challenged prevailing dogmas”.

Identify an assumption that almost everyone takes for granted in your department or field. Ask yourself how you could test whether the assumption is true. Could there be a different and better way to do things? As Edward de Bono, best known as the originator of the term lateral thinking suggests, try to escape from things that we all take for granted.

Fear – the great idea killer

Fear kills ideas. We fear ridicule from our peers and our boss. Fear causes us to hold back from communicating or implementing our ideas. Tim Brown provides a good example how afraid we are when we have to expose ourselves in front of an audience. In his TED talk he asks the audience to draw their neighbor in 30 seconds.

As a team leader, what can you do to create a trusted environment that is inducive to exploring ideas? Set the rules for brainstorming, display them publicly and make sure you stick to them. As facilitator, step in when an idea is under attack. Consider creating an idea box – a place where ideas are collected and visible to all. This can be idea management software. The advantage to software is that people don’t have to expose themselves to the immediate reaction of their peers. They can take the time they need to phrase their idea correctly and they can get stimulated by and build on other ideas.

Build your creative toolbox

In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp says before you can think out of the box you have to have a box to begin with! The box can be a folder on your computer, a web site, wall space in your office or a shoe box under your bed. What’s important is to have a space dedicated to the project containing artifacts and visual reminders of what is important.

What I do to get ideas

Here are some of the things that I do to get ideas. What else should be on this list? Let me know what works for you.

  • Read widely. I continue to add books, articles and relevant blogs to my reading list. When developing learning products, I look at neighboring disciplines like Design Thinking or Experience Design. If you don’t yet have a reading list, a good start is: The 100 Best Business Books of All Time by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten.
  • Build a diverse network. I like to surround myself with people from different fields. If you are a technical person, seek out people with design skills. Consider joining a book group to discuss ideas and ignite your own ideas. Don’t limit yourself to groups in your professional area but also consider neighboring disciplines.
  • Draw. Learning to draw is a fundamental skill that trains your eye to see things that we usually don’t see. Milton Glaser, the graphic designer best known for the “I Love New York” logo, emphasizes the importance of drawing in order to make sense of the world: “It is only through drawing that I look at things carefully.” The next time you are trying to solve a problem, ask yourself whether a simple drawing would illustrate the problem better than words.
  • Gain a different perspective. I like to grab my camera, choose a single object like a paper clip and shoot it from different angles. Try it. It is fun to look at things from a different perspective.
  • Capture ideas. I almost always have a small notebook and camera with me. Great ideas come at unexpected moments. Document your thinking so that you don’t forget your ideas and can revisit them at any time.
  • Movement. When I feel stuck, I get up and move, take a walk or exercise. Don’t become glued to the issue at hand. Move away from it, get some distance and then revisit it when you are fresh. Sometimes, a bit of distance from an issue is all the brain needs to come up with a creative solution. That may be one of the reasons why we get our best ideas while we are doing something unrelated to the problem.
  • Get inspired. Inspiration comes from many sources. For me, nature, music and art are inspirational, as are exhibitions, conferences, and online communities. Make a list of things that will inspire you. One reason the TED conferences are so popular is because people need inspiration from art and science to make new connections and generate ideas.

Last but not least: Be patient

Good ideas are the result of a process that requires time for incubation. So get back into the shower and enjoy watching your ideas surface!