Great Ideas Can Come From Inspiration -- or Brute Force Yes, brute force works. Here are the four main approaches to idea generation.
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Ideas are what drive entrepreneurs forward. They form the basis for great businesses and fuel meaningful changes in those business's trajectories by offering new products, new improvements and other features to outdo the competition.
But ideas aren't like startup capital, employees or other resources -- you can't go hunting for them and expect to reliably find some. Moreover, you can't resign yourself to never coming up with new ideas -- otherwise your business will never grow or improve!
When you're trying to dream up a new business idea, or generate some new, alternative solution to a problem your business faces, your hunger for ideas will take you to some interesting places. All in all, though, there are only four primary ways to generate new ideas.
1. Brute force
The brute-force model is probably the strangest on this list, because it defies the intuitive notion of what an "idea" is. In this model, you'll be trying to force yourself to come up with a new solution or premise with no outside help. This usually includes some kind of branching pattern -- you'll start with a concept, imagine all the ways it can apply itself and see if there are any opportunities for improvement. If not, you'll move on to the next concept, and so on.
The brute-force method is handy if you're in a pinch, like if you have a tight deadline and no time to wait around for inspiration. However, there are some serious limitations here, the most notable being that you'll be limited by your own perceptions and biases. In this method, your mind is a closed system, and that means there's a fundamental upper limit to the ideas you'll be able to generate.
Inspiration comes in many forms, but they all share a fundamentally common point of development -- something outside your mind sparks you to think in a new direction, or in a new way, and eventually, you land on a significant idea.
Many successful inventors claim that their best ideas came to them randomly as a flash of inspiration after stepping away from a central problem for a period of time. More commonly, inspiration takes off as a direct result of some stimulation. You might see two uncommon objects paired together and think of an abstract way to combine them or hear an interesting piece of music that takes your mind in a unique direction.
While it can't be forced, inspiration can be cultivated. You can deliberately seek out novel experiences, surround yourself with art and interesting people and develop ample time and patience to let your ideas come naturally. The downside is, of course, that this process is totally unpredictable and takes up a lot of time.
Collectivism is a model most of us are familiar with. A group of people get together to brainstorm, sharing different perspectives and thoughts that eventually culminate in a group-generated direction or solution. There are many advantages to collectivism. It has more force and direction than the inspiration method, it eliminates the single-minded biases of the brute force method, and it can work out the early kinks of an idea before it fully develops.
Of course, collectivism has its weaknesses too. Oftentimes, you'll find varying degrees of interest and participation. Some individuals will dominate the group and others won't participate at all. Accordingly, you'll find that most ideas here end up centered and plain rather than bold and innovative, since everyone's trying to work out a common solution that everyone else can agree on.
4. A hybrid model
The fourth method is some combination of the above three. For example, you might ask your teammates to brute-force some early concepts before coming to a group brainstorming session, or you might take some time to become "inspired," then use brute force to flesh those ideas out.
There's no right or wrong combination of these methods, so feel free to get creative here, and let yourself dabble in each technique. The more ideas you generate, the better -- it means you'll have a higher chance of knocking one out of the park.
Which of these models is best? Arguably, a hybrid model could give you the best of all worlds, but it has its disadvantages too. No matter which approach you choose, there's still a high degree of unpredictability, which means you'll never be able to pin down exactly what you want exactly when you want it. Then again, that's half the fun.
Also, remember that most ideas aren't perfect when you first come up with them. They demand refinement and improvement, as if you're chiseling a sculpture out of marble. No matter which method you use, the ideas you land on will be flawed, so choose the method you're most comfortable with -- and get generating!