Learn a 75-Year-Old Method for Producing New Ideas

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This is a guest post written by Dan Price, Justin Dobbs, and Patrick Woods. Dan described this method during a recent visit to Keen IO, and it felt very familiar. We use a similar approach, including plenty of Step 3. Our flavor works well for us, so I asked them to share the formal method with you.

When it comes to creativity, a lot of things have changed in the past 75 years. Even more things haven’t. In 1940, legendary ad man James Webb Young published A Technique for Producing Ideas, a simple, step-by-step process that can be applied to almost any thinking in almost any industry.

So next time your creative well is feeling a little dry, try out this proven 75-year-old method:

1. The mind must gather its raw material. The more you see, hear, feel, and experience, the more raw material your brain has to work with. So seek out new experiences so your head is chock-full of rich idea fodder.

2. Review and “feel” your raw material, seeking relationships. Young writes that all ideas are simply new combinations of stuff already in your head (your raw material). Try to find relationships between things that aren’t immediately apparent. Push things together. Pull them apart. Flip stuff upside-down. No combination is off-limits.

3. Drop it completely. This step looks a whole lot like not working (which might explain why no one does it), but it’s arguably the most vital. Just because you aren’t actively engaged with the problem doesn’t mean your brain isn’t. Your subconscious — that massively powerful, judgement-free part of your brain — needs time alone to work out problems. It can’t do that with your conscious brain looking over its shoulder. So go for a long walk. Go see a movie. Take a couple days off.

4. Grab the idea when it jumps out at you. When the big idea comes, it rarely comes during business hours, and it never comes during brainstorms. When your subconscious is finished solving the problem and creating a new idea, it’ll hit you like a train. This will happen at the weirdest times, just when you least expect it.

Train through a wall

This wall just had a great idea

5. Bring your idea out to reality. Write it down. Stare at it. Study it. Work it over. And maybe most importantly, share it and ask for criticism. A great idea will self-expand as others see its potential, often helping you see it in whole new ways.

These steps worked for James 75 years ago, and they’re still working for many creative companies today. Give them a shot the next time your company needs that big idea.

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