The Birth Of An Idea

April 13, 2012

light_bulbIt’s the question we all dread. I’ll admit, when I was first innocently asked The Question, I turned bright red and stammered my way through some garbled explanation. Let’s face it, no amount of preparation can possibly make it easy to address The Question when it finally comes:

“Where do ideas come from?”

We’re in the idea business, and I like to think we’re fairly creative here at Fast Horse. But there’s nothing sexy about our ideation process. In fact, we don’t have a process, and I’ve never run across a foolproof method for brainstorming. Trust me, in 23 years of working in agencies, I think I’ve seen them all.

My friend and former colleague, Joe Loveland, recently offered an interesting post on the topic of brainstorming over at the Same Rowdy Crowd. His description of a typical agency brainstorm is not as over-the-top as it might seem. His description of the squishy toys, over-sized Post It notes, chirpy facilitators and alpha-ideators is dead on. That, folks, is pretty much how brainstorms go down at most agencies. And it’s as painful as it sounds. The roots of such group brainstorming, writes Loveland, go back to an ad guy named Alex Osborn, who wrote several books on the topic in the ’40s and ’50s.

But here’s where Joe’s post gets interesting to me. Loveland cites a 1963 study by a University of Minnesota researcher, Marvin Dunnette, who explored the effectiveness of such group brainstorming. In his experiment, Dunnette gave groups of four a problem to solve, simultaneously challenging an individual to solve a similar problem. To the amazement of many, Dunnette’s study found that in 23 of 24 instances, the individual brainstormer produced as many or more ideas of higher quality than the group.

Not shocking to me in the least.

I long-ago abandoned large group brainstorming as a worthwhile creative exercise. In my experience, the very best ideas have usually started with no more than two or three people kicking a challenge around. And while I do enjoy knocking around ideas with a colleague or two, I’ve found that I can often be just as creative by myself. It’s not that I’m any great creative shakes. It’s just that creativity in our business does not happen at the conception of an idea. Creativity, is what happens after the original spark, and that is often a very solitary process.

My guess is that most of the ideas submitted by Dunnette’s brainstormers were garbage. Most ideas at inception are, no matter how they were conceived, and that’s likely why the individuals in his study compared favorably to the groups in terms of volume and relative quality.

Ideas only become good when practitioners use their experience and resourcefulness to transform the ugly, slimy little larvae of potential into the fully developed and beautiful creature we all recognize as brilliance. In our business, you have to be able to shape an idea to fit within available resources and it has to be grounded in strategy. That requires a deep understanding of the big picture. And you have to be able to draw on a wide variety of experiences, both personal or professional, to make ideas original and practical.

So, dear Peeper, when you’re finally confronted with The Question, simply stand up tall, look your young questioner in the eye, and declare the following with sincerity and conviction:

“Well, I’m glad you asked. Ideas come from experience, curiosity, hard work and a finely tuned BS detector.”

And then quickly change the subject.