Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

where great ideas come from

Great ideas can appear to come from almost anywhere. They can result from thoughtful research or they can pop in your head while you are taking a shower. More often they seem to come from combining two existing – and often unrelated ideas. For example:

  • The electric light bulb fastener. Thomas Edison needed to figure out how to attach a light bulb to the fixture. He used the principle of a screw cap from a water bottle to do it.
  • The automobile assembly line. Although Henry Ford gets the credit, it was actually Bill Klann, who worked for Ford, who came up with the idea. He was in Chicago and toured the Swift slaughterhouse and saw how animals were disassembled on a moving conveyor built. He then figured you could use the same concept – in reverse- to assemble cars.
  • Warren Buffet developed his investing philosophy by studying the hitting strategy of baseball player Ted William

So combining ideas together is what seems to generate a lot of good ideas. And interestingly it is combining ideas from different industries (as the examples above do) that appears to be a big part of it.

When the recording industry went digital it went from vinyl records to CD. It was an “in-house” improvement on the old technology but still, it was a physical disk. It took the computer industry, specifically Apple iTunes, to truly revolutionize the distribution and consumption of music.

What seems clear is you can’t wait for those great ideas to pop in your head. If you do, you’ll be waiting a long time. Andy Boynton, Dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management believes creating new ideas needs to be a very deliberate process. He says:

“Behavior trumps IQ. And the behavior that trumps IQ in terms of innovation and creativity is the behavior of an idea hunter – which is to go hunting. Einstein said, ” I’ve no special talents other than I’m passionately curious.” And to be a great idea hunter will increase the likelihood that you will collide with a great idea.”

So coming up with good ideas is typically not an accident. People who innovate come up with a lot of ideas in a very deliberate fashion and get skilled at figuring out which ideas are worth pursuing. Like anything else, it takes practice.

An idea worth developing typically goes through three stages, according to Patrick Howie, author of The Evolution of Revolution:

1.    Resistance. No matter how good an idea, anything new will meet with critics who don’t like it.

2.    Clarification. Most new ideas are far from perfect. They come out “half baked” and then go through a refining process and get better. Fads typically die here.

3.    Revolution. A great idea must continually re-invent itself. It is almost never one thing –  but rather a series of innovations over time.

The automobile is such a great example of this. The first car was no better than a horse. It didn’t go any farther, it costs more and it was less reliable. It was just the start. All the subsequent innovations were much more important to the success and acceptance of the automobile.

Interestingly, according to Patrick Howie, people tend to give up too soon on their ideas. Usually it is when people get hit with the first wave of resistance. It is such a shock that someone would criticize what is clearly (in the innovator’s mind) a brilliant idea is enough to cause people to throw in the towel. Resistance by itself is not a good reason to quit.

How do you come up and develop ideas? I’d love to hear how and get your comments. Please use the comments box below.

Insights for this post came from the following books:


photo credit: danielfoster437 via photopin cc

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