Idea Generation: Boosting your output of good ideas 

by Max Gunther

How to boost your idea generation.

Every year companies shell out millions for employees' suggestions. That's just one small part of the payoff for getting bright ideas on the job. YOU'RE riding home from work, or cleaning the garage, or shaving.

~ Suddenly it hits you: "Hey! Why don't I . . . "

You've got a bright idea. It came from nowhere. You weren't hunting for it. But here it is, a diamond dropped in your pocket by nobody, for nothing. It's an idea for making extra money, or solving a problem, or simplifying your job, or face-lifting your house. Or maybe it's an idea for a gadget or a part-time business.

An Ideas car number plate

(Photo Credit k-ideas)

When will you get another idea like that? No telling. Bright ideas- really bright ones don't come often. They don't, that is, unless you know how to make them. And you can learn how.

History is full of men who had that incalculably valuable knack. Edison, who started with little education, ended with 1,200 patents and a tidy fortune. On a smaller scale there's the guy at Remington Rand who collected 300 times on ideas he dropped into the suggestion box These are the men who move ahead Says General Electric: "We're always hunting for idea men. No big company can stay alive long without them." One indication of the value of ideas: the $20, 000,000 given away by U.S. companies every year for employees' suggestions.

You can cut in on the bright-ideas benefits yourself, whether it's to impress the boss, get a better job, hit the suggestion system jackpot or just make things run more smoothly at home.

For today, the art of idea generation is close to a precise science. Psychologists have analyzed it. Big companies that live on new ideas have spent millions refining it. Their conclusions:

  • You get bright ideas by combining old ideas in new ways.
  • You can improve your idea generation ability by doing this without much effort.

You may find a course on ideas being offered by your company or a local college. If not, ask your librarian for Alex Osborn's book, Applied imagination, or Charles Whiting's Creative Thinking in Management. Both are written with businessmen in mind, but anyone can use their teachings in any area of life.

Or YOU can train Yourself. There are only two closely related things you need to understand:

  1. how to make your idea generation equipment turn over faster, and
  2. how to shove aside mental blocks so that your ideas can come out.

Idea Generation

Natural-born idea men, tests at the University of Chicago showed, are likely to be people who nave trouble making friends, who show a "need to retreat" from the human world into the world of ideas machines and things. But everybody has the mental equipment for idea generation and can speed up the process.

To do that, you must consciously push "Like a machine, the creative part of the mind suffers from inertia," says Willarc Pleuthner, vice-president of Batten, Bar ton, Durstine & Osborn, big New York ad agency that has done much of the thinking about idea generation.

"The first step for any individual or group in need of ideas," he says, "is to define precisely the kind of ideas wanted Then set a definite quota and time limit— so many ideas in so much time. Without this deadline, we've found, the mind just doesn't function at top efficiency."

Suppose you want extra cash for your vacation. You need ideas on how to get it. Pick a quiet time of day and a comfortable chair, or tackle some easy job around the house that doesn't take much thought. Put a pad and pencil nearby. Tell yourself: "I want 10 ideas by noon." Probably to your own surprise, ideas will chatter out of your head like machine-gun bullets. "You'll get more ideas this way," says Pleuthner, "than in a week of moping around, waiting for ideas to come." 

The Blocks

Once the ideas start flowing, you have to keep them alive at least until you know whether they're any good. Most people don't. They kill them off the instant they're born with what psychologists call inhibitory mechanisms mental blocks. You can get around the blocks (and save good ideas) if you watch out for them. Among the commonest idea killers:


Your mind usually allows too big a margin for error. Walter Brzoza, creative-thinking expert at General Electric, illustrates this block with a closed, empty box the size of a shoebox. Almost always, says Brzoza, people asked to guess its contents list things so small that they'd fit into a box a tenth that size. Anything bigger than a pack of cigarettes seems risky and the mind blocks it. To hurdle this block, force yourself to take rash, even wild chances—mentally, that is.


Your mind rejects ideas if they reverse the way things are usually done or trample on cherished feelings. In a classic demonstration of this block, a group of MIT students was shown an iron pipe bolted upright to a wooden base. Down inside the pipe was a Ping-pong ball. Nearby on a table were an assortment of tools and a rusty, beat-up pail of water. Problem: Get the ball out of the pipe. The students figured it out fast: They poured the water into the pipe.

Then a second group was given the same problem. This time, in place of the rusty bucket there was a sparkling-clean pitcher of ice water with a drinking tumbler. The students tried everything but the water. Seeing it in the pitcher, they also elated it so strongly with drinking that they couldn't think of its other uses.

This mental block often disappears, if you purposely "turn things upside down."

Visual Block

Once you've seen a thing one way, you have a hard time imagining it any other way. To illustrate this, GE' Brzoza takes one group of men and show them arty drawings of flower vases. He shows a second group drawings of faces. Later, he brings the two groups together and shows them a single vague picture. One group says it's a vase; the other say it's a face. Again the cure is the conscious search for something different.

False Requirement

Your mind fence off whole areas of ideas by assuming requirements that don't really exist.

This block almost upset a good-will gesture a few years back. Connecticut children had been presented a baby elephant by children in India. Problem: How to raise $1,000 to bring over the elephant.

Adults and kids stewed over the problem until someone broke through the mental block and pointed out that the true requirement was not money but transportation. Sure enough, an airline agreed to deliver the elephant for nothing. 

Idea Generation Techniques

The experts have worked out new idea generation techniques that remove blocks at the same time they speed up your creative mind. Most famous is "brainstorming," formulated in 1939 by Alex Osborn, cofounder of BBD & O. Its main principles:

  1. Rule out all critical judgments during your idea generation session. If it's a group session, make it absolutely against the rules to criticize any idea, or laugh at its or deflate it in any way.
  2. Welcome wild, ridiculous ideas.
  3. Concentrate on quantity. Forget quality. Don't stop to assess ideas. The sole object is to get as many on paper as possible.
  4. When the brainstorming session is over—and only then—go back over the list and begin judging the ideas.

One classic example of brainstorming concerns the group that set out to solve the dishwashing chore. Prize solution: Use edible dishes and eat them after dinner for dessert. A more prosaic example is the bicycle repairman who got publicity and doubled his business by staging races for the kids.

Down-to-earth ideas about solving common problems can be very effective. So can fanciful ones like edible dishes. You won't know until you try them. And you can't try them until you force your brain to produce them. That's the important thing to remember.

You can set up brainstorming sessions where you work. Or set them up with the men in your car pool, your wife or your neighbors, to tackle everything from boosting your neighborhood to winning suggestion-box awards.

The best brainstorming group includes people with different personalities and backgrounds. If possible, bring in somebody who doesn't know anything about the problem at hand—your wife, for example, on a semi technical or business problem. She probably won't know certain things are impossible, so she'll suggest them— and maybe they'll turn out to be possible after all.

You can brainstorm by yourself. Groups produce the most ideas, simply because more creative heads are at work. But according to some researchers, you yourself will create more and better ideas when you are alone. Yale University Prof. Donald W. Taylor found that lone thinkers turned up twice as many ideas per person as people in groups. What's more, the individuals' ideas were as original and useful as the groups'.

Another kind of idea generation system, first developed at Hotpoint Co., is called "reverse brainstorming." In this system, criticism isn't ruled out; it's emphasized. The idea is to look at something long and hard, then list as many things as you can think of that are wrong with it—including wild and ridiculous criticisms.

For instance, suppose you figure you can make some money by inventing something—an improved bicycle, say. Go out in the garage, sit down and ponder your son's bike. Search out every detail that might possibly cause trouble. Follow the usual brainstorm rules: quota, deadline, no judgment of ideas. Very possibly you'll come up with an idea for improving the bike- something that was blocked in other minds.

Still another idea generation system was developed at MIT by Prof. John E. Arnold. Its main purpose is to get you into the habit of thinking along untried, unorthodox paths.

Arnold told his industrial-design students to imagine a planet named Arcturus IV. This planet has gravity 11 times Earth's, a methane atmosphere, ammonia seas. Its inhabitants are manlike creatures with two Earth-type eyes and one X-ray eye, three-fingered hands, fragile bones, and so little dexterity that they'd kill themselves in minutes if handed the wheel of your car. Arnold's students were assigned the job of designing products to sell on Arcturus IV.

This kind of exercise gets you used to traveling in totally new regions of thought. Paradoxically, that's where you'll often find the best ideas. 
The above articel was first published in 1959. 

[End of Idea Generation Article]

You may also be interested in visiting the tips for idea production page or the creativity techniques section of the web site.

Go From Idea Generation To Innovations Articles 

Go From Idea Generation To The Home Page 

Can't find what you're looking for? Search the rest of the site below...

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.