where do ideas come from?

You might be running along this soft dirt trail through the redwood trees and think of a new idea for your work

newsletter #26 | 18-Jul-2017

Ideas are sexy. You get attention and credit if you have good ideas; you and your organization gain success if your ideas really catch on. But there’s not a heck of a lot of focus on where great ideas come from. We just assume they will show up, leaping like a goddess from our foreheads. Consequently we focus all our resources and effort on perfecting these already-generated ideas. It’s time to mature your practice of creating ideas–the stuff that comes before an idea forms.

Where do ideas occur to you? In the shower? While you’re running? Sleeping? Weeding the garden? (This morning my neighbor suggested it’s when he’s procrastinating and thinking about his photography instead of what he should be doing.) Creativity, or coming up with ideas, is very easy when you aren’t trying to actually solve a problem right at the moment. So when you’re in front of the whiteboard explaining your mental roadblock to somebody, when you’re thinking of nothing in the shower, when you’re daydreaming about something else … these are the times when your brain is able to pull concepts together that you otherwise wouldn’t have associated. If you relax your brain, then things will pop out.

the ideas you think of come from what's already in your brain

The one drawback to this cognitive behavior is that your brain can only forge new ideas from things that exist within your mind already. And hence the problem with creating products and services arises. Teams only think of solutions that are couched in concepts already familiar to them. Organizations only truly branch out into new areas when there’s a technological breakthrough or a new way to market something. But other human perspectives? Other human approaches to the same problem? These are not part of the ingredients swirling within the minds of those who make product and service decisions.

To make the cognitive fields more fertile, so to speak, teams need to ​stuff their brains with a breadth of perspectives. Teams need a deeper understanding of other people’s thinking styles.

Stuff your brain with other people's perspectives to broaden the kinds of ideas your brain can generate

How do you do this? Collect other people’s reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles via listening sessions. Spend time with this qualitative data understanding the meaning people were trying to convey. Look for patterns. Synthesize the patterns into various forms. (mental model diagram, behavioral audience segments, user stories, journey maps) Then use the results as everlasting opportunity maps, returning to them time and time again to jog your memory and cause that cascade that allows your brain to associate things it wouldn’t have normally–to come up with a great idea.

It’s truly rare to find an organization that gives idea-generation the serious attention that it deserves.


Thought Provoking

Here’s something fun. My creativity and thinking definitely gets influenced by ideas I read about in speculative fiction. Here’s a list of a few of the stories I’ve read in the past 12 months, along with some of the ideas within those pages.

  1. Freedom & Necessity – Steven Brust & Emma Bull
  2. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Lois McMaster Bujold
  3. The Dispossessed – Ursula LeGuin
  4. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. White Plague – Frank Herbert
  6. Beggars in Spain (trilogy) – Nancy Kress
  7. Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu
  8. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
  9. Chasing the Phoenix – Michael Swanwick
  10. The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin

BonusThe Long Now: Kim Stanley Robinson talks about how climate will evolve government and society

Freedom & Necessity – Steven Brust & Emma Bull
Delicious book; seriously good writing! It’s a love story told through letters between the four protagonists, set in the mid 1800’s. I got a great sense of history and where women were in the scheme of things. Very enlightening. Also: the social labor movement, the Poor Law, aristocracy, Australia (“transportation”), and America, all from the perspective of the characters involved. The protagonists reference all sorts of popular culture, philosophy, and politics of the time, often tongue-in-cheek.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Lois McMaster Bujold
Another book in the Vorkosigan saga, only this time it’s back to Cordelia, the character who started the series. Three years after her husband’s death, she is re-establishing her footing on the planet that she discovered during her years with the Betan Survey. There are a few things that made me twitch: I was a little annoyed with the military attitude of “I know how to treat you because of your rank.” I wondered at the invasion of the biome of that planet and the helter-skelter introduction of off-planet plants willy-nilly. Other than those two things, it was a love story centered around the solid threesome that Cordelia, Aral, and Jole had made for two decades. I celebrated the idea of the choice to create a child between Aral and Jole.

The Dispossessed – Ursula LeGuin
This book might have been a bit too serious as a choice for my vacation, but I really, really enjoyed it. The main character is from an anarchic society (beyond money, beyond socialism) where people are willing to do things for the greater good. He is a physicist, about to make a major discovery that his society does not value. So he migrates to another society, much like our own, where he learns, among other things, that “the radio is only a device for talking about things for sale.” (heh) The thread jumps back from the present many times to describe how the main character got  to be the way he is, and it’s fabulously done. It is fairly realistic about how such a society might not be a place of great art, or how it might be dangerous during famine.

Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson
This book helped me look at politics from different angles. I looked up so many words and highlighted so many phrases. I am becoming a Robinson political fan, and also a Brust political fan. “Capitalism is for the rich and powerful, not for the creative, scientific, academic, or crafts- or service-person.” Blah. There was one theme in the story that me twitch, though. It dealt with females as intelligent beings at first but then relegated them to “being married” or “getting pregnant.”

White Plague – Frank Herbert
At first I didn’t like the book–it was published in 1982. The female characters were so shallow as to not even exist. The point of view kept switching, paragraph-to-paragraph, between the main white male characters. But, it grew on me. It’s a fiendish topic: a plague that kills females. One storytelling complaint: it seems like Stephenson’s book SevenEves in that it simply describes all the details of an event but not the following history. At the end of the book, the men are eagerly becoming “second husbands” for the remaining women, to “continue their family line.” There is only 1 woman to every 10k men at this point. And a priest is planning to make contraception illegal. (screaming in my head) In the background the characters are rejecting religion because no god protected them from the plague. In the background the women muse about the power they have gained. The world is a very unstable place with terrorists and military leaders plotting for power. So, clearly it’s complex. I wish I’d been able to read about the after-story.

Beggars in Spain (trilogy) – Nancy Kress
What was happening in 1996? That’s the year I first read this book, and recently I thought of this story again. It’s very complex and rewarding, and pretty much stands the test of time. As I remember, the Sleepless form a society of their own. The non-Sleepless split into Liver and Donkey societies, the latter of which still go to school and have careers. The former are “on the Dole” and enjoy themselves, except when they feel dehumanized because they have no value. “Newsgrids” continue to shape public thinking. Donkey politicians buy votes by providing free entertainment, events, races, food. I especially enjoyed the quotes from Abraham Lincoln. I am thrilled to burrow into history to see the efforts of other people doing the same thing we’re trying to do. It never changes. And yet the end of the book is all about how individuals change over time and have new perspectives.

Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu
This is the first book in a trilogy, and I had heard good things about it. A movie is in the making. It starts out with scenes from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which made me more aware of the frequency of deaths among scientists and academics. Then the story switches to the present, then to a game environment, and it begins to tell the story instead of show the story. Either the translation or the original was mechanical, devoid of human flourishes. The characters displayed emotional extremes that seem improbable. I’m not a gamer, so the in-game sequences and the “flow of time in-game sped up” annoyed me a bit. Still, there were scenes that were very memorable.

Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
This book had me laughing in delight every few pages. It’s about Caribbean creation myths and modern-day people, as many of the Gaiman stories are (myths reaching into modern-day). It takes place in London and Florida. And the other world. Funny, funny, hilarious lines and fantastic characters and lots of fun all around. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I especially liked that it referred to one person as “a white woman” which is just the opposite of most literature and praiseworthy in my perspective.

Chasing the Phoenix – Michael Swanwick
More hilarity! The characters are crafty, always working an angle, and enjoying themselves thoroughly. They are definitely the Trickster character at its best. At times I was certain ALL the characters were playing each other like con-man marks. The passing references to the world-current genemods (“pulled by canal lizards,” “sitting on a barrel of allosaur jerky”) were grin-worthy in that the author called no attention to them. There were a few sober passages about the human condition, but most of my highlights in the book were about the comedy. Fun, fun, fun!

The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
It’s so fun to fall into a completely new world, with characters whose minds are fascinating, living in a world where people are described with physical features intended to make the reader understand the randomness of prejudices developed upon hair texture and skin color. (“What we think of as racial markers would’ve developed along completely different lines.”) I enjoy learning a whole new realm by being immersed in it, kind of like in Anathem. So fun! So new! Half way through the book I suspected that some of the characters were actually the same person at different stages of her life. The author is a force for writing from other perspectives, which is awesome! I so appreciated the artistry of the storytelling.


Q & A

From Melissa Kim, intern for Christina Wodtke’s WomenTalkDesign.com, June 2017:

Q: During a listening session, how does one remain sensitive to time? A common phrase I hear a lot during recruiting/interviewing/etc. is, “I want to be sensitive of your time…” Yet with listening sessions, ideally one should allow the person to continue talking for however long. Is there an equivalent/parallel phrase you use during the beginning or another part of a listening session?

A: During my spoken screening call with the participant, if they pass inspection and we make an appointment for a listening session, I’ll make a note if they say they have a hard stop at the end of the call. (like to pick up a child, etc.) Before the scheduled call, I’ll review my notes. When I get the participant on the line, I do my little intro and mention their hard stop as a way for them to confirm it or say it went away. Then when that time comes, I’ll say, “Oh, I notice that it’s [3pm],” and let them respond. Often the response is, “Let me just finish explaining this bit.” But, (here is the important part), if there are no notes about hard stops and no mention of it from the participant at the beginning of the scheduled call, then I never mention time. I never wrap up a listening session myself. I let the participant wind down and kind of imply that’s all there is to say. When this occurs, I ask if there’s anything else that occurred to them that it might be helpful to know. Maybe 25% of the time there will be more and the session continues. (Also note: when you turn off the recording it’s a known “thing” that participants will talk more, so don’t turn off the recording until the participant is off the phone.)

Q: (in the midst of recruiting) At this time, we have 20-ish respondents to our recruiting survey. Obviously, we can’t do listening sessions with all 20 candidates in the short amount of time we have. I’m wondering how Jennifer and I should respond to those who we don’t choose to talk to––do we even need to? Should we consider creating an additional survey-esque form and try and get more data from them?

A: Depending on how you worded the email and the recruiting survey intro, you may not have to respond to every candidate who filled in the survey. Pick the ones you think fit your research scope and call each one of them for the spoken screener to figure out if they have enough to say about their deeper thinking to fill about an hour listening session. Use a short related question to see if you can lead them deeper into a subject. If they’re not a good candidate, tell them that you have their contact info and will reach out if you decide to include them in the study. They don’t know that you’ve rejected them, or that other candidates that you accept actually set up an appointment for a listening session right then.


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