So, what’s an idea?

Ideas fuel innovation. No ideas? No innovation! But what are ideas exactly? In this interview we ask Gerard Puccio PhD, author of “Creative Leadership” and the “FourSight® Thinking Profile” and chair of the oldest Master of Science program in Creative Studies, to illuminate what ideas are and where they come from.

So, what is an idea?

GP: An idea is our imagination’s way of responding to a gap. A gap might be created by a question that doesn’t have an answer or a problem that doesn’t have a solution. We bridge the gap by forming a new association or connection. That’s an idea. People often confuse ideas with solutions. In my opinion, a solution is an idea that has already undergone the process of being evaluated, refined, and developed so you’re very close to bringing it to the world. An idea, by contrast, is closer to the wellspring of imagination. In the overall process, it is closer to the initial insight – the ‘aha’ moment.

Where do they come from?

GP: We find ideas by looking for them. While it’s true that people occasionally stumble on a new idea, most ideas come in response to a need. It could be the need for a new product, business or opportunity. When our mind identifies that gap, our imagination starts working to create an association that will bridge it. The more we fuel our minds with rich stimuli, such as new knowledge, ideas, concepts, theories, images and experience, the more effective we become at making associations that bridge gaps.

How do we become better at having ideas?

GP: We can train our imagination. Exercising our imagination is just like developing any other ability. We may come into the world with some set point, but through sheer practice we can become more skillful at producing new ideas and concepts. There is a myth that developing our own creativity is impossible, so many people don’t try. But there are a few effective strategies and methods that can really increase your output. Here I’m thinking of the creative problem solving process and the many divergent thinking tools that lay down specific rules, like learning to suspend judgment and striving to come up with many potential options, rather than building a solution on the first idea. Again, feed your imagination with lots of stimuli both related to your job domain or discipline as well as outside. Cross-fertilization of information is more likely to lead to breakthrough because it injects a new train of thought.

Who is best at having ideas?

GP: I believe that everyone is creative. We just have different ways of expressing it. Some people seem to have a knack for asking the right questions. Some have the patience to perfect a plan. Some have the courage to take a creative leap. Others are hardwired to generate ideas. The FourSight® Thinking Profile identifies people’s thinking preferences. One of the preferences is the ‘Ideator’. As the name suggests, these are individuals whose minds are drawn to play continuously with new possibilities. They often stun others who do not have this thinking preference by the massive amount of new ideas they can produce. In fact, sometimes they can’t seem to find the stop button. That’s how natural the production of ideas is for an Ideator.

Are there particular age groups, nationalities or cultural groups that are better at coming up with ideas?

GP: You’re likely to find people who are good at coming up with ideas in occupations that attract Ideators. I think of the ‘creatives’ in advertising, artists, designers, R&D, inventors, and consultants. Interestingly, through our recent research with FourSight®, we’ve learned that many top executives express a high preference for the Ideator thinking style. My sense is that senior leaders have this tendency because they are the big-picture thinkers, the visionaries, the individuals who forecast the future and explore the possibilities it holds.

Historically, has there been a good time for ideas?

GP: Over the course of history, ideas seem to flourish where there is a cross-fertilization of different cultures and the free flow of ideas. The Renaissance is the classic example of a time in history when we saw a significant increase in new ideas. Today the Internet allows for cross-fertilization and imagination and the easy exchange of concepts. Look at the kind of collaboration we’re seeing with people who have never met face-to-face writing books, composing music, developing technical innovations. Organizations are able to access new consumers and the broader world. Open innovation and crowd sourcing allow the larger population to submit ideas that may become the next innovation for the organization. Now is a very good time for ideas.

When do ideas happen?

GP: It’s a myth to believe that ideas come through stress or panic. Actually, research done by Teresa Amabile shows that harsh deadlines don’t promote ideas. What they promote is a grasp at the low-hanging fruit – the ideas you have already had. Generally, ideas happen when you have time to think. We’re often struck with ideas when we’re drifting off to sleep or driving to work or taking a shower.

Are there organizational conditions that help?

GP: Yes. You can promote a culture of ideas by allowing ‘idea time’. Google is the poster child for that. They encourage people to explore ideas, allocating a set percentage of people’s time to ‘think’. 3M has done the same thing in their R&D labs. Team leaders can provide their people with the latest knowledge in their field and encourage people to look outside their field. That’s where most of the fresh thinking is going to occur. You also want to consider idea support. How are people treating other peoples ideas? If it’s a highly critical environment, people will learn to keep their ideas to themselves. In a setting like that, imaginations can atrophy.

How should one receive an idea from others?

GP: Counter-intuitively. The way most of us are taught to respond to a new idea is to find fault with it. That doesn’t work so well for the idea. Remember, an idea is still a newborn. It’s not a robust solution yet. So treat it gently. Specifically, we teach people to use the technique called ‘Praise First’. You can remember it with the acronym POINT, which stands for Pluses, Opportunities, Issues and New Thinking. So when someone approaches you with a new idea, express what you like about it. Identify its good points and articulate the opportunities that might open up if the idea were to gain acceptance. Once you’ve established its merits, you can express any concerns you have about the idea, but worded as a question that invites new thinking. For example, How might we fund that? Or, In what ways might we convince the boss? When we did our research on training impact, the tool that was used most often was POINT. It gives leaders a structured way to honor the person who has an idea by acknowledging its attributes and offering constructive feedback that aims at developing and strengthening the idea. Fewer ideas get squashed in their infancy.

What do ideas do to us?

GP: There’s an emotional response when you have that ‘aha’ moment – a sense of relief and joy. Ideas make us more powerful because we resolve dilemmas, and that’s a very life-giving experience. There’s a deep sense of satisfaction in coming up with ideas that have value to us.

What physical environment works best?

GP: It all depends on the person. People vary in terms of the physical surroundings. Me, when I need new thinking, I need music and physical movement. Other people find music distracting. People need to design their own space to create the physical environment that supports them best. Some people will like light, dark, warm or cold. Because there’s no single recipe that works for everyone, it’s important for people to take control of their own physical space and have it work for them. In organizations it’s important to be sure there’s a physical location where people can collect, literally like the water cooler. People need to have ready access to each other because ideas often spring from those simple exchanges and conversations.

Do we need pauses for reflection or are we better off being immersed in information and constant stimuli?

GP: We need time to pause and reflect. Take a walk. Go to a conference. Take a trip. Get away from an environment where you’re sprinting all the time. When we have time to step back and reflect, we literally give our minds the space to come up with new ideas. That’s what I like about flying. No email. No interruptions. No fires to put out. I can think. It’s absolutely crucial.

Do you have any personal favorite ideas?

GP: The FourSight® theory and measure. The concept of creative leadership, i.e., the belief that leaders need to embody creative thinking to be successful in the 21st century. The idea that everyone can learn to be more creative and that creative thinking is an essential life skill.

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