August 06, 2009

Why it's important to (want to) know Where Good Ideas Come From


This is the first of eight posts on the theme of Where Good Ideas Come From

The creative industries in the UK alone are worth some £70bn each year, about 8% of GDP and growing at about double the rate of the rest of the economy, made up by everything as diverse as television production to game-making, book-writing to advertising, public relations to jewellery. For the past year I've been contributing to this industry, learning the art and science of commissioning new media ideas, turning internet, mobile and gaming ideas from paper dreams to running code realities.

In the workplace, we have a variety of processes, individual talents and skills to ensure that most of these dreams turn into good ideas in the real world, from designing efficient challenging structures through which people pitch their ideas, to the knack of producing a contract that not only makes sense but is fair to all parties. A fair dose of gut instinct and knowing the shifting sands of the vast new media landscape contribute to building, hopefully, more excellent ideas than fairly good ones. The processes hopefully eliminate the really dodgy ones altogether.

But given the aims of the initiative with which I'm working - Channel 4's Innovation for the Public - to change people's lives for the better, to have a lasting impact, to achieve technological and social firsts, and to do so with a trademark slug of trouble, finding and generating good ideas in the first place is something that, if we could define it, would make life a lot easier.

Knowing Where Good Ideas Come From in any walk of life leads not just to a more pleasant experience in life, but a better experience for others and a more profitable life for everyone.

Knowing what makes an idea good is one thing. 95% of ideas get rejected, a large number fairly swiftly and, say, 5-10% after having looked in more detail at the issues involved. Few, if any, seem to appear elsewhere suggesting that either the ideas are too costly to get off the ground, leaving a Government or private investor struggling to see their investment have the desired tangible result, or they are cheap to produce but aren't seen as Good Ideas by the intended users or participants.

Knowing what we could do to improve those conditions of creativity is another goal, perhaps more tangible. These conditions, these physiological, physical and mental places are Where Good Ideas Come From.

What's important to consider, though, is that "being creative" is not, as is often the assumed case, a result of some form of change management. All too often, change management and the overpriced consultancies that help you get from there to here are in the business of selling the change of a more creative company or self. If tapping into creativity is reduced to change management, then we are indeed in for a rocky journey. Only 30% of change management programmes achieve any change at all, let alone the intended one and not necessarily a change towards a more creative one. Creativity is something most of us can unearth in the right circumstances with enough time, effort and stamina to see us through the darker moments of our "crappy ideas" being mocked or left out to dry.

And, of course, some of us (most of us?) tend to come up with fairly crappy ideas most of the time, and that's alright, seeing if they work before moving onto the next one when we realise we were heading down the wrong path. Not just in the world of new media and technology, though, is the potential for heading down too many different paths and tangents at once so ripe. Never have the options opening up been so great, the tools at our creative disposal so varied. Creativity is attempting to go exponential when often our more analogue brains and bodies aren't really in a mood for catching up.

With this, change management, that sudden jolt of inspirational energy (or brush of quasi-guru-like consultant fluff), is even less appropriate a model on which to base an rebirth of creativity in our organisations. As George Church put it:

"In a changing world, inaction can be the radical 'action'" (cited by Tim O'Reilly)

Or, as Euan Semple cribbed it:

"Don't just do something: stand there."

It is no happenstance that our first main areas of investigation of Where Good Ideas Come From are nearly all about time (and the lack of it) and the need for us to stand still, do nothing and drink it in. Someone, I can't remember or Google who it was, once said that they were in the habit of taking a day return flight, at least but no more than four hours long (the time of the laptop battery) in order to get things done without interruptions. Sometimes it's just the practice of regularly, say, every Tuesday morning, of taking a flight at 35,000ft to see the world move by a little slower and take it all in, before joining the land at a seemingly faster speed later. Of course, that's not really how it works. We all fly faster when we're taking in the overall view of things at 35,000ft and that seems slower than when we're on the ground, 'only' going at 10mph at sealevel but things seeming too fast to take in, let alone control.

Nor is creativity some elusive black art available only to the few, while the rest of us trudge on with our lemming-like routine. As Colin Anderson, MD of Denki Games in Dundee, puts it:

Today we run the risk of thinking of creativity in the same way as we once thought of electro-magnetism – magical, unknowable, a black art. Poppycock, I say again! It’s a series of deliberate choices – some serial, some parallel, some conscious, some sub-conscious – made by assessing the values of many variables simultaneously through the filters of knowledge, experience and aesthetic appreciation. More variables than we can currently define and measure perhaps, but that doesn’t make it magic. I subscribe to the school of thought that says “art is a science with more than seven variables”, and from where I’m looking creativity is precisely that. (emphasis added)

There are indeed more than seven variables to creativity and therefore knowing Where Good Ideas Come From. I'm going to make an attempt to understand what some of those variables are and would ask for your help in the comments to fill in the inevitable chasm-like gaps.


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Sometimes good ideas come from the melding of two seemingly unrelated ideas. In technology, combining a camera and phone. Years ago these would have seemed like very strange partners. In counseling, outdoor adventuring combined with therapy. In education, an iPod touch (as some would view as a toy) in a science class. Sometimes creativity simply arises by someone just trying to be silly. Silliness has it's place as well, think of all of the political satire found in print and television! Where humor and current events can come together to contribute to cultural change and new perspectives.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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