No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world. – Robin Williams
An academic said to me recently that we are in the business of ideas, we exchange ideas. And that’s an interesting thought. which leads to a question – how good are we at coming up with ideas and, once we have them how good are we at sharing them with others?
In the literature, people have theorized that there are four elements to idea generation: fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration (Guildford, 1957).
Fluency is a raw number – the volume and quantity of ideas you come up with. The more you have, the more fluent you are. This is the idea that no idea is a bad idea – somewhere in that mess of ideas you’ll find a good one.
This reminds me of copywriting advice on writing good headlines for a project. Before you start writing any content come up with 50 or so headlines – the act of working on this will help you come up with ideas that you perhaps might not have considered if you had stopped with the first one or two ideas that came into mind.
But it’s not enough to simply have a big number of ideas. You also need flexibility – the ideas need to be different from each other. If you come up with the equivalent of a hundred knock-knock jokes that doesn’t mean you can tell a story or move people’s emotions. You need variety in your ideas and need to try and come up with different types of ideas.
The next thing that matters is originality – how different are your ideas from other ones out there, or ones that other people working on the same problem have come up with. Originality is very important – it’s what gives you a competitive advantage. If you can show that you’ve done something different, something that hasn’t been done before – then you can lay a claim to that idea. You own it.
The last element that’s important is elaboration. Anyone can come up with an idea for the next YouTube – but it takes more than that to really get the idea across to someone else. A business plan is really an elaboration of an idea – showing how you’ve thought it through and that it’s something realistic and valuable. If you cannot elaborate on your idea then you won’t get people to buy into it.
Four questions – four guides when you’re coming up with your next idea.
Guilford, J. P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review, 64(2), 110–118.