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Where do great ideas come from?

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Great ideas are the catalysts for innovation, progress and, ultimately, our ability to survive as a species. Every great invention throughout history started as an idea. But where do these great ideas come from? Do the best ideas start off as simple shower thoughts? Are they the result of genius? Or divine inspiration? Or is idea generation a practice that can be learned? Let's explore the concept of idea generation and how you can develop your creative thinking capabilities to have strokes of genius of your own.


We often associate genius with people who possess exceptional intelligence or creativity, or both! While it is true that some individuals possess a natural predisposition for ideation and creative thinking, it is a skill that can be learned and developed. A pioneer of creative thinking, Alex Obborn, a New York executive in the mid-20th century, experimented with methods to provoke creative thinking from his team, one of which was brainstorming. (BBC, learn to be creative). Fast forward half a century later and now there is a myriad of creative studies, design thinking and innovation courses and workshops designed to encourage creativity and develop lateral thinking skills, which is the ability to solve problems by viewing them in a new and unusual light.


So the ability to consistently generate ideas isn't something you either have or you don't. It's a muscle that once exercised and used regularly, can be strengthened over time. It's also helpful to know that divine inspiration is widely accepted as a myth and ideas are never completely original in nature. They are a result of building on previously learned information or experiences through effort, focus and skill.


Ideas are simply a connection between two seemingly unrelated concepts and idea generation is the creative process of connecting these concepts.

If coming up with innovative and thought-provoking ideas is something you would like to develop, here are some strategies to get you started exercising your creative thinking muscles. Some of these strategies are employed by the most innovative companies in the world to stay ahead of the curve and maintain their position as industry leaders.


Dedicated time to focus on innovation – This one seems obvious but without dedicated time to focus on personal projects and think creatively, businesses can become bogged down in business as usual and fail to think outside the box. Tech giant and innovation-centric Google encourages employees to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects. This policy has led to some of the company’s most successful projects including Gmail, Google Maps and Google Drive. If you’re struggling to find the time to think creatively consider ways you can automate or streamline your day-to-day activities or speak to your manager about protecting some allocated time each week to dedicate to a passion project. If you’re unsure what this project is, use this time to think, explore and learn.


Putting it into practice

  • Take a look at your calendar tomorrow and note if there's anything you can automate to make room for creative thinking time. AI has arrived and there are many tools out there designed to do the heavy lifting for your repetitive types of activities. Spend the first hour of your day responding to emails? See if Chat GPT can help you create templates for common requests or responses.

  • Ask your manager if you can block out time for professional development each week, which can include reading articles, exploring platforms like Pinterest for creative inspiration or tackling a new project that requires some out-of-the-box thinking.

  • Cancel some meetings. Meetings can be the ultimate time-suck. Look at your meetings and ask yourself what value am I getting from this meeting? and what value am I giving? If you're not sure on either, consider removing it. This is easier said than done but it doesn't hurt to ask the person facilitating the meeting if you need to be there if your efforts could be better spent elsewhere.



Experimentation – Some our great modern-day inventions have been a result of failed experiments or experimentation that didn’t go to plan. Slinky's, penicillin, potato chips and the pacemaker are all examples of life changing inventions that were created by mistake. The millennials following along that love Romy and Michele's High School Reunion will recall that Post-it’s are another example of a failed experiment that resulted in a new invention. Scientist Spencer Silver was trying to create a strong adhesive when he actually created a weak one. Years later Art Fry used this adhesive to create a bookmark that wouldn’t fall out of his hymnal during choir practice. Low and behold, the post-it was invented! Even if experimentation doesn’t go to plan, there are learnings that can be gained from being open to new ideas and accepting that sometimes failure is a part of the process.


Putting it into practice

  • Take a risk and try something new. Create a hypothesis for a controlled test using this formula: If we test x it will x due to x

Here's an example: If we test using images of animals in our ad creative it will increase our ad engagement due to people liking animals more than humans.

  • Be kind to yourself when things don't work out. Failure is part of the process and it should be accepted that with any test, a win or positive outcome is great and failing and learning is also great.



Inspiration – Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and sometimes great ideas can be a direct application or slight variation of an idea someone else is already using. While it's not advised to wait for your competition to innovate ahead of you and arrive at the party too late, there's much to learn from looking at what is happening outside of your industry and seeing what you can apply to yours. The travel industry is a fantastic example of innovation in the e-commerce space that can be applied to almost any e-commerce website. Is there anything more anxiety-inducing than the pop-up message '30 people are also looking at this hotel room on the same dates'? Take note of things that grab your attention or get you to take action and think about how you can make that thinking work for you.


Putting it into practice

  • Dedicate some time to exploring different businesses' websites outside your own industry for inspiration. Subscribe to a different industry publication or e-newsletter for regular updates.

  • If you already have a problem you're trying to solve take a walk in your local area or city. As you walk by different stores, try to think about how that store would approach solving the problem.

  • Join a community of creatives (just like ideas oasis :P)


Brainstorming with diverse thinkers – To foster creativity and generate great ideas surround yourself with people who think differently to you, who have different lived experiences. Getting outside our comfort zone and being challenged by different points of view helps us let go of long-held notions of how things should be done that restrict our thinking and ability to come up with new ideas and solutions.



Putting it into practice

  • For those who regularly brainstorm with a team consider the 'leave a seat' method whereby the team identifies one person to save a seat for that would add a different perspective to the conversation. This could be someone from a different team, someone with a different level of experience or perhaps someone new who hasn't yet been indoctrinated into the usual ways of working.

  • This might be a challenging one for the introverts of the world (myself included) but try to make connections with people different to yourself. This could be someone whose working style is the polar opposite of yours or someone who is extremely extroverted and outspoken. Luckily most of the time these extroverts will find you first!


These strategies are a great place to start and in reality, they just begin to touch the surface of all the techniques and practices there are to develop your creative thinking and problem-solving skills so you can generate great ideas, more consistently. I'm looking forward to sharing more and helping people have great ideas and bring them to life.


Fern Speechley

Follow along at @ideas_oasis




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