No such thing as a new idea?
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”Mark Twain
On the one hand this can sound disheartening. What on earth are we doing trying to be innovative if there is no such thing as a new idea? Looked at another way, however, and we can find reassurance in this bit of wisdom from Twain. If finding ideas just means rearranging previous ideas, how hard can it be?
This is an important question, because the vital ingredient of innovation is the idea. Design Thinking, Agile, SCRUM, Design Sprints, Growth Hacking, Growth Sprints, kaizen and even good old fashioned project management – all these methods require an inexhaustible number of ideas to be produced and selected from.
Coming up with ideas, or what the kids call ideation, can be a challenge. Let’s explore ideation techniques that can help you meet that challenge by turning the kaleidoscope in different ways.
Quick, name that flavour!
Bryan Mattimore wrote the book titled 99% Inspiration in which he described getting a call from Ben & Jerry’s, who wanted his help naming a new ice cream featuring fudge and strawberry. They’d been at it for three months and wanted him to help them find a new name in a single day.
Mattimore seized on the counter-culture vibe of the company. He tore the pages out of a slang dictionary and asked the ice cream company staff to try to riff on what they found in the pages. In short order the team found the perfect name: SNAFU, Strawberries Naturally All Fudged Up.
The slang dictionary was all Mattimore and the team needed to fill the end of the kaleidoscope and come up with the clever, catchy name the dessert deserved.
My earliest research brought me to the work of Genrich Altshuller (1926-1998), a Soviet inventor and science-fiction author. Altshuller found that problems and solutions are repeated across industries and sciences. His research into patents found that each new invention they contained could be explained in one of forty ways, what he called the 40 Principles of Inventive Problem Solving.
One of Altshuller’s conclusions was that all new ideas are built with combinations of existing ones. This is a literal embodiment of Twain’s kaleidoscope: if you want new ideas, you must remix old ones.
The combination of these ideas is intoxicating. As an engineer I found the various principles easy to grasp and appreciated the way they were comprehensive. Altshuller and his adherents have reviewed thousands of patents and found that they can all be explained with the principles – a powerful tool indeed.
Still, forty principles is a lot to grasp, let alone convey to somebody else, particularly people who don’t have an engineering background. Second, even though I am an engineer by training, I found myself leaning heavily on a subset of the principles which I later found neatly embodied in the simpler ideation method called SCAMPER.
SCAMPER is an easy and flexible way for individuals and teams to come up with a wide variety of candidate solutions. SCAMPER can be applied to coming up with new candy, the clever moves made by Tesla and SpaceX, and even mixing and matching movie ideas.
While TRIZ and the 40 Principles come with rigour and the certainty a solution can be found among them, whereas SCAMPER is, to be honest, just a set of possibilities. If we use the kaleidoscope analogy, TRIZ studies every possible angle as the kaleidoscope turns. SCAMPER just checks the most likely.
But, the beauty of SCAMPER is that it works and is easy to learn, use and demonstrate. It’s also far more likely a team will have the patience to work through SCAMPER’s seven idea catalysts than the forty!
De Bono’s six hats
Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.Edward de Bono
Just as SCAMPER invites the person or team generating ideas to think in seven different ways, Six Thinking Hats is a system devised by philosopher Edward De Bono that invites participants to imagine themselves wearing different hats which encourage different viewpoints.
The hats each come with a different vibe and objective – its own turn of the kaleidoscope.
The blue hat is the organizing impulse, bringing discipline and focus. The white hat only considers facts – what do we know and what do we need to know? While wearing the red hat we can “go with our gut” – what do we feel? Then there is the discerning black hat, practical and realistic. Yellow is for the sunnier viewpoint, bringing optimism and harmony. Finally there is the green hat, the provocateur that asks why and how and examines entirely new ideas.
Two (or more) heads are better than one
Each one of these techniques is a way to “get out of your head” and look at a problem with fresh eyes. It’s a bit of a Jedi trick doing that. It might be easier to get somebody else’s fresh eyes to look at the problem you are solving.
This is why ideation sessions typically take place in groups. But what is the solo entrepreneur to do? Look for someone to bounce your ideas off. Somebody who will take your challenge seriously and treat it like your own. Somebody you can riff with, who won’t attack or ridicule your ideas, but instead act like a great improv partner, adding their “yes, and” to your ideas until a fully formed idea is developed.
If that person isn’t available, then structured exercises like the growth sprint for solopreneurs I conducted recently can also be effective. In it, a group of business owners can share their burdens and wisdom in a structured way to ensure that actionable ideas result for each.
I look forward to exploring this technique more. If you are in the GTA and would like to be at the next growth sprint workshop, email me!
Turn that kaleidoscope
Brainstorming effectively means coming up with lots of different ideas, not lots of very similar ideas. Using some catalyst, whether it’s a book of slang, the idea embodied in thousands of patents, or SCAMPER, helps us to look in many different directions for inspiration, one turn of the kaleidoscope at a time.
Download a free printable guide to SCAMPER
I’ve prepared a free guide to producing more ideas than you thought possible to initiate the innovations you need in your job, your business and your life.
Click here to get your free downloadable guide to the SCAMPER’s 7 Powerful Idea Generators, which includes seven examples of idea generation involving Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Delicious!