Tom Foremski at Silicon Valley Watcher has a short post with succinct thoughts on how we generate and use ideas. I’d like to discuss the four points that I took away from his post.
- Ideas should be shared
I come from an academic research background where researchers within the same field can often be very protective of their ideas for future research. The last thing academic researchers want is for someone else in their field to get the same idea, conduct the research and publish it before they do. Publishing is everything in academia.
When I was a graduate student, I used to get ideas for ways to further research that I read or heard at conferences, and I would squirrel away the idea in a notebook, intending to pursue the idea in the future when I had my own lab. Well, I soon realized that I would never be able to research anything but a fraction of the ideas in my list, so I eventually simply started sharing all of my ideas as they occurred in hopes that others would find them interesting and pursue the ideas themselves. Chances are, my ideas weren’t that unique anyway, and the conversations that ensued from talking about them were valuable enough.
A successful entrepreneur that I worked for at a couple of companies in Silicon Valley often said that having an original idea was not necessary to be a successful entrepreneur; in fact, most startup companies are based on ideas that have been conceived by many others. Successful entrepreneurs are able to find the right time/application/market for those ideas or technologies that already exist and can overcome the key hurdles that prevent those ideas from being a commercial reality.
At the first Emerging Entrepreneurs Conference at Stanford University in 2005, an audience of invited entrepreneurs was asked what the hardest part of being an entrepreneur was. Getting good ideas was not near the top of the most frequent responses (if I had a better memory, I could tell you what was at the top—I think raising capital or finding the right team members). In other words, good ideas are plentiful; execution and ability are the key difficulties.
- Freeing ideas makes room for other ideas to flourish
Anyone who uses the Getting Things Done (GTD) method of organization can appreciate this concept. Part of GTD is getting tasks out of your memory and into a repository of information that can be referred to on a regular basis.
Any good researcher/scientist/engineer should have a method for storing ideas for future use and assessment. Anyone who is creative will generate many ideas, and chances are that the person won’t be able to remember those ideas a year later when the they are required for planning or research roadmapping. If someone has an new idea each week, what are the chances that all 52 can be remembered after a year of accumulation? Write them down. For years I have used Braintree as a way of organizing ideas into categories for future reference. Other equally capable software programs exist, even a running text file would suffice.
Once you write an idea down, the pressure is off to keep remembering it. Often, I find that an idea I had in my head looked less appealing once I had written it down and reconsidered it later on. The idea becomes less personal with time, and your assessment more objective.
Assume that you’ll have many, many great ideas. Figure out a process for managing them that works for you.
- You get great ideas by having lots of them
In other words, don’t wait for the One Great Idea to hit. Generate lots of ideas. Talk about them, write them down, spend time thinking about them. Some will stink, many will be mediocre, a few will be great. Work the mediocrity and stinkiness out of your system so that greatness can occur. Write them down so that you can assess them all with a more objective eye later. And don’t be discouraged if you have ideas that keep getting shot down or don’t hit their mark. Practice will hone your ability to hit the target, particularly if you solicit feedback and discuss exactly what worked and didn’t work with your ideas. As long as you keep generating new ones, you really can’t complain.
All the best researchers and innovative people that I’ve worked with, by the way, are figurative fountains of ideas. They’re a joy to attend a conference with, to join at a local presentation, or simply to talk with over coffee or a beer. I suspect that the majority of start-up entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley fit this description.
- Ideas are often created subconsciously and pop-up when we are alone with our thoughts
Foremski mentions the stereotypical idea-in-the-shower scenario, and defines why this is such a common occurrence. It’s because this is one of the few times that we are alone with our thoughts.
The reason we get great ideas in the shower is that this is often the only time we are not bombarded by outside chatter from the radio, TV, family, or colleagues. In the shower we have an opportunity to hear ourselves, and that's the source of all our ideas.
As noted earlier, our subconscious does a lot of processing of data that we are exposed to, and we require time to ourselves with an undirected state of thought to pull those newly-generated to the surface. They’re not going to come to you in the middle of a meeting, while watching Survivor, while in a forced brainstorming session. They require room to grow and time to develop, and then the undisturbed waters in which to surface.