Where do new ideas come from?
Great news! Inspiration abounds: we can think, share, and explore our way to new ideas.
Studies offer different clues: how we think, how we connect with others, and how we connect with the world around us—all help us come up with new ideas. We all long for that “aha!” moment. It turns out that thinking in analogies, training ourselves to observe and notice differently, and encouraging divergent thinking all help us produce new ideas. Some argue that new ideas aren’t created but are spotted, and if that’s your take too, there’s some handy ways to go sleuthing.
Commentary from the d.school
A scholar’s perspective
The logic of routine work vs. creative work is that one is about driving out variance and the other is about driving in variance: one is about doing the same thing over and over again while the other one is about doing different things. That has a bunch of implications for routine vs. creative work.
The logic of exploring for new discoveries vs. exploiting knowledge is different and puts the two in tension with one another. Analogic thinking is a useful tool to get people to see the same old problem in a new way.
Analogy as the core of cognition
Douglas Hofstadter in Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 2006.
Humans are analogy-making machines
Is analogy is the key to how we think? Hofstadter thinks so. He proposes that “every concept we have is essentially nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies,” and combines cognitive science with semantic analysis to prove it. Here’s how it works: Abstractions capture the “essence” of an idea in our mind. Those essences are concepts which serve as containers and allow us to think at multiple scales. As an example, “airline” contains planes, hubs, and terminals. The way we connect these webs grows our intellect.
The primal mark: How the beginning shapes the end in the development of creative ideas
Justin Berg in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2014.
Why novelty is a must, not a maybe
The “primal mark” describes that first moment that an idea is created, similar in likeness to the first brushstroke of paint on a canvas. This study explores how choosing how we start an ideation activity really matters and frames ideas on a spectrum of familiar to totally new. Creating a “primal mark” that is intentionally new and combining it with familiar content forms the most promising combination of novelty and usefulness.
The Creative Studies Project
Sydney Parnes, Ruth Noller in Journal of Creative Behavior, 1972.
No such thing as “I’m just not creative:" you can learn to be more creative and it’s been measured
This classic two-year study provided creativity training to 150 students (with another 150 as a control group). The research approach separated students into class sections to receive four 15-week semesters of creative study courses. These courses provided semantic and behavioral tests which showed improvement in divergent thinking and problem solving skills. The findings suggest that creativity can be improved through training.
Entrepreneur Behaviors, Opportunity Recognition, and the Origins Of Innovative Ventures
Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B Gregersen, Clayton Christensen in Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, 2008.
Spotting opportunity in the wild: how successful entrepreneurs notice opportunities
Using observations and interviews, researchers studied 400 executives and entrepreneurs. The findings suggest that successful, innovative entrepreneurs differ from unsuccessful entrepreneurs based on their practice of four behaviors: questioning, observing, experimenting, and sharing ideas. Examples of interviews include Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Benioff (Salesforce), and Diane Green (VMWare).
Cognitive neuroscience of insight
John Kounios and Mark Beeman in Annual Review of Psychology, 2014.
Unpacking the “aha” moment: how insight links to science
What’s behind an “aha” moment? This paper explores the nuances of insight, especially in light of recent scientific research that explores this question. The authors explore interpretations of insight across disciplines ranging from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, with a section on the relationship between mood, attention, and focus. Generally, positive mood broadens our potential intake of information, while also allowing us to activate the parts of our brain responsible for keeping our attention on the task at hand.
Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation
Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 2010.
Networks generate ideas too, not just individuals within them
Beginning with Darwin, Johnson debunks individual “eureka moments,” focusing more so on collaboration and context over time. He argues that the conference table at a lab—rather than the lab itself—drives innovation. The discussion among scientists, in combination with their work, is what makes new ideas possible. Johnson reviews almost 200 ideas and analyzes their origins, creating a framework based on individual vs. network and market vs. nonmarket. He suggests that increasingly networks will be a richer source of idea flow and origin.
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