Where do ideas come from?

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Tommydickson

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently. In a way, it is the ‘holy grail’ of innovation, one that many innovation books are trying to answer, or help you with – if you can understand where ideas come from, and refine that, so you get better ideas more often, then one can win notoriety/fame and fortune.

As with many things however, it’s just not that easy. Coming up with ‘good ideas’ is an art. Sometimes we think they ‘pop’ into our heads, and we don’t quite know how one minute we had no idea, and the next we are empowered by a thought that we want to develop and share with others.

From reading around on this, and thinking about it, one clear message appears to come out – ideas are often (but not exclusively) not things that come quickly, from a single person in a single moment (as many people believe, in a sudden ‘Eureka’ moment, or having an apple fall on your head), but rather ‘grow’ over a period of time from a network (it’s only the ‘realization/awareness’ of the idea, the ‘connecting of the dots’, that appears sudden).

Therefore, three things:

  1. we need to communicate,
  2. communication needs to be bi-directional to maximise the idea opportunity, and
  3. the more we communicate, the more ideas we’ll have.

This latter point exemplifies what’s now started happening on the internet: more communication, more ideas. Note however, it wasn’t the advent of the internet when this started (one way communication of ideas, while better than nothing, doesn’t maximise the idea opportunity) – it’s the Web 2.0 / Social media developments which have fully energized two-way dialogue on the internet.

I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Steve Jobs – it’s a good read. It repeatedly circles around, sometimes focuses on the topic of where Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s ideas came from. Many talk about Jobs/Apple as being highly innovative (iCloud, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Mac, Apple II, etc.) – the book discusses the developments that led to these innovations. There are also many blogs (eg, Mashable) and newspapers, that have discussed this topic also, in particular following Jobs’ death, attempting to see if a magic ingredient can be determined, a secret to Jobs’ success.


A core theme behind the story of Jobs’ life, as presented by Isaacson, is that many of the ideas were built upon ideas/development of others – for example:

“As [Jobs] once said, “Picasso had a saying – ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ – and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” [in reference to how Apple further developed some of the concepts initially worked on by the Xerox PARC team]

Indeed, Steven Johnson has written a book, and given a TED talk, on the topic of ‘Where good ideas come from‘ – see the animated video below, from a shorter version of the TED talk he gave on this topic:

In “The Tweaker”, in the New Yorker magazine (November 14, 2011), Malcolm Gladwell describes Steve Jobs’ genius as being a ‘tweaker’ – not one to come up with his own ideas from scratch, but rather one who ‘tweaks’ other ideas to make something better. Gladwell gives other good examples of how great innovations came from iterated/tweaked ideas, sometimes over several generations of tweaking by different people.

Developing ‘Multiple Distinct Options’

Most organisations that want to achieve something delegate the task to an individual or a team. The individual may ask others for help, or the team may delegate sub-sets of the task to individuals in the team, or maybe even brainstorm how to progress. The problem with this approach is that it is largely uni-directional:

  • it allows dominant forces in the team to lead the direction in which the task moves (either dominant individuals, or senior team members, neither of whom may have the most creative, or best way to solve the task)
  • it allows momentum to dicate the end-point of the task, whereas sometimes creative thoughts are ignored, or not noticed, which might allow for a better outcome

How to address this?

Set up separate ‘competing’ teams – in effect this is a fundamental principle of capitalism, that markets allow competition, and the market to assess the best ideas through consumption trends (based on marketing, desire, intuition, and, like-it-or-not, group-think and media sensationalization).

Capitalism doesn’t however necessarily operate in the same way inside organisation – in particular, ‘taxes’ are replaced by ‘hurdle’ rates and forecasting (expected returns on investments/spending), and democratic/free choice is replaced by strategic direction and seniority/hierarchy (and both are heavily influenced by internal politics).

Often, in the aim to ‘maximise efficiency’, if multiple teams approach one goal, then it is often considered that the work invested in processes that are not ultimately chosen to achieve the goal are wasted. As such, organisations typically tend to focus on single-track (the ‘best’ one) to achieve a goal – it is however exactly this approach which minimises creativity, and potentially misses the chance to develop, or notice ideas which might be far better than the one ultimately chosen, or even off-shoot ideas, which have nothing to do with the pre-defined goal, but might allow for significant upside potential.

The key however is not just in having multiple distinct options, but being robust and almost mercenary about turning down (or parking for later investigation) the ideas and options that do not work, in favor of the one that works best.

Jobs’ clearly knew this, internalizing it to almost ridiculous levels, per Malcolm Gladwell, about Steve Jobs approach to receiving healthcare, during his illness:

In the hospital at the end of his life, he runs through sixty-seven nurses before he finds three he likes.

“At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated,” Isaacson writes: ‘Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. . . .’


Once a goal is defined (eg to respond to a certain question, or achieve a certain outcome):

  1. Determine a project leader, to work on the goal
  2. At some point (maybe from the beginning, but not necessarily) determine an appropriate time to set up separate teams / sub-teams to approach the idea from different ways – it is important to do this before too much common/team brainstorming otherwise the ideas of some team members anchor the team around pre-determined thinking, and potentially lose the ability to think freely [Developing multiple distinct options]
  3. Encourage broad, tangential reading around the topic – management/business/other theory, thought leadership, market reports, competitors’ marketing (websites, etc.), industry specialists, etc. [tweaking]
  4. Canvess the ideas of people outside the team, with open, unbiased questions
  5. When a team’s discussions identify junction points, where multiple ideas exist to approach a specific task, consider whether it is appropriate to either ‘splinter’ the team further or recruit new team members to work on the separate ideas separately [further multiple distinct options]
  6. Bring teams back to together to present their ‘competing’ solutions to a problem, and evaluate in the broader team – likely new ideas will then come out, possibly merging the best bits of the existing ideas, or possibly mutually exclusive new ideas; sometimes it just takes a rich idea environment for new ideas to be developed [more tweaking]
  7. Be robust enough to choose the best idea from those presented (including the subsequent iterations) and then move forward
Of course, there are many other aspects to consider in Where ideas come from’, not least the creation of homogenous teams, but I wanted to dee-dive on the above topic, to collate some of my thoughts from recent reading.

9 Responses

  1. I covered this very subject during my MBA some years ago that drew the same conclusions. I still have a the material covering in excess of 100 creativity techniques that I still use regularly

  2. Interesting perspective by John Cleese:

  3. More on Cleese’s talk, under the link below, including this interesting quote:

    “Curiously, Cleese’s formula for creativity somewhat contradicts another recent theory put forth by historian Steven Johnson who, while discussing where good ideas come from, makes a case for the connected mind rather than the fenced off creative oasis as the true source of creativity.”


  4. […] to be built on, iterated, developed – see my comments on ‘tweaking’ in my post “Where do ideas come from?”. It’s a well-oiled machine, driven by desire for success and reward, capability and […]

  5. In support of epiphanies (and also left versus right brain thinking), two interesting blog posts related to the discussion in my post above:- “Blinded by the Light – The Epiphany” by Steve Blank, and “Entrepreneurial Process vs Epiphany” by Greg Rader:


    ps. Steve’s blog design is uncannily similar to my own (ie, we both used the same ‘theme’)

  6. […] applying principles of innovation adhered to by Steve Jobs (see for example my previous post ‘Where do ideas come from’). He may not have been an all-encompassing role model, but he was certainly someone who has […]

  7. […] already published a blog post about where ideas come from (Where do ideas come from?), in which I referenced Kirby’s work, and also mentioned similar discussions (eg, […]

  8. An interesting post on ‘Thoughtless innovation’, representing a mixture of ‘eureka’ and ‘informed preparation’:


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