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Ideation – Idea Innovation


Ideation – The Innovation of Ideas

Ideation is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s a fairly recent addition to the marketing lexicon and can best be described, according to Webster as, “the capacity for, or the act of, forming or entertaining ideas.

In his book, pamphlet really, titled, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young says that there are several discrete stages involved with idea creation, or Ideation, that (almost) anyone can implement. The piece is heralded as a step-by-step technique for sparking creativity in advertising or any other field. 

The genesis of this discussion came to Mr. Young as he was preparing for a graduate class in advertising at the University of Chicago, many years ago. Mr. Young was an American advertising executive who was inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall Of Fame.

In his discussion, Young says that the whole concept of creating ideas, “…has brought me to the conclusion that the production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, to, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.”

Young goes on to say, “What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which ideas are produced; and how to grasp the principles which are the source of all ideas.”

Step One – Combining Old Elements

One of the things that I find most fascinating about this step is the fact that there really is nothing new under the sun. In other words, there are no new ideas rather, just combinations of old elements.

Tip: Think about some of the best ideas that you’ve ever had or, that you are aware of, and consider their make-up. Where did they come from? Is it really new stuff or, is it a combination of existing or old(er) elements?

Here are a couple current examples of some pretty cool ideas:

Uber – Convenient, inexpensive, safe taxi service (existing). Hire a private driver (existing) to pick you up & take you to your destination, with the tap of a button on any smartphone device (existing). See? There it is… a combination of old or existing elements.

Tesla – The top American car brand (according to Consumer Reports February 2017), ranked 8th among global carmakers. Offering the world’s best-selling, plug-in (existing)  electric (existing) car (existing). There it is again, a combination of some pretty old existing elements.

In the ideation process it’s important to gather the raw materials that you will need in order to create your ‘new’ idea.These raw materials come in 2 forms, specific knowledge and general knowledge.

As Young puts it, “…An idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people, with general knowledge about life and events. Think about how those raw materials came together for the innovators who came up with the Uber and Tesla concepts mentioned above.

Tip: Start storing up all kinds of resources, in some fashion, so that you can go back to evaluate and use them. I have a ridiculous number of bookmarks on my browser, contained within specific categories, as-well-as countless folders on my Google Drive. Not to mention, files and files of hard copy information that I have ferreted away over the years. I’m sure there are several books to be written in there somewhere but, that’s a topic for another day.


Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook

Here’s a great analogy from Young on this point, “You will all remember the famous scrapbooks which appear throughout Sherlock Holmes stories, and how the famous detective spent his spare time indexing and cross-indexing, the odd bits of material he gathered there.” 

It’s an interesting side note that, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a futurist, living at a time and place when the technology of the industrial revolution was radically transforming people’s lives,” says Alice Bonasio of Quartz Media.”Many of the concepts he wrote about in Sherlock Holmes’s fictitious adventures formed the basis for pioneering forensics techniques that are still in use today.”

So, in a manner of speaking, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was actually practicing the Ideation process, once removed, in his character Sherlock Holmes! How cool is that?

Step Two – The Mental Digestive Process

In this step you take these various resources and, “feel them with the tentacles of the mind.” I love the way that sounds because, it really captures the way you need to think about and feel the various bits and pieces that you have collected.

Think about the image you have in your mind of an octopus and how they sense, taste and feel things with their tentacles. Try to do the same thing with your mind, as it wraps and entwines itself around these resources. This is the step in the process where you start to put the pieces together in your mind. Look for the correlation or connection between seemingly disparate and unrelated parts.

You could even go so far as to perform (mini) mind  or thought experiments, most notably done by Albert Einstein. “One of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, Einstein is well known for conceptualizing complex scientific ideas by imagining real-life scenarios,” says Ali Sundermier at Business Insider. 


Whatever you do, don’t give up. Keep turning things over in your mind, trying to find connections like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. This process of trying to put these pieces together is commonly referred to as mind-mapping, which is the visual representation of your thoughts with a central idea (in utero), surrounded by connected branches of associated topics.

Tip: Write down the partial thoughts that come to your mind as you go through this part of the process. Young suggests 3X5 cards and I think there are 2 bits of real value in that. First, you are documenting these partial, incomplete thoughts. Second, you’ve actually created something using your muscles and your brain. This makes an indelible impression in your mind because, you’ve crossed over from just thinking about something to actually acting physically on it.  

Step Three – Forget About It!

Now that you’ve done all of that… Forget about it. Really! Do whatever you can to put the whole thing out of your mind. Find a suitable distraction, a passion of yours; listen to music, watch a movie, go for a walk, ride a bike, take a drive, whatever you can do to get your mind off of the thing.

I can say that this is one of the hardest things for me to do because, anytime I’m doing one of those things I tend to zone out and get inside my head and I think about whatever, deeply. Try not to do that and pay attention to what’s going on around you.

The idea here is to turn the problem over to your subconscious mind and let it work on the problem for you. The best way to do this frankly, is while you sleep.

Step Four – Eureka! Start Thinking About it Again

If you’ve followed the above steps in the process, this 4th step comes fairly naturally. More importantly, it will come to you when you least expect it. It might even wake you up from a sound sleep. Out of thin-air your idea will come.

Tip: If you wake up abruptly, in the middle of the night and there is no apparent reason like, a burglar or, the cat knocked over a flower pot, try, try, try to remember what you were thinking about when you woke up and WRITE IT DOWN! You might just want to keep a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed, just in case.  

As Young says, “This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them, and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation…”

Step Five – The Cold Grey Dawn Of Ideation

Just like a newborn baby, you’re new idea is alive and kicking but, by no means is it complete or fully developed. It’s time to, “take your little idea out into the world of reality,” says Young. “And when you do you usually find that it is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it.”

It’s time to let the rest of the world have a look at your conceptual infant. Try not to be an overprotective parent. Go ahead, let them hold it. They probably won’t drop it. But hey, that’s what this step is all about. Take some risks.

If your idea is a good one, and it can stand on its own two legs, metaphorically speaking, people will naturally want to add to it. Thus, giving them the opportunity to participate in your Ideation process. Furthermore, you probably can’t see the forest for the trees at this point and you’ve certainly overlooked some things that others could bring to light.

In conclusion, Ideation – the innovation of ideas, doesn’t have to be a big challenge. If you follow the above steps you can; 1) gain speed in generating new ideas and, 2) use a proven process that will take your abstract and seemingly disjointed thoughts and turn them into a profitable reality.

Happy thinking!

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