5 Ways to Spark New Ideas, from Marty Neumeier

This post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from the writings of Marty Neumeier, The Skill of the Century: Dreaming, Rotman Magazine, Fall 2014. 

“Innovation is evolution by design.”

spark ideasIn periods of great change like the one we’re living through right now, one of the most important skills to possess is imagination.

It turns out that when people talk about ‘dreaming up’ an idea, they’re not far from the truth: imagination has been closely linked to dream states. Once we learn the ‘trick’ of dreaming – of disassociating our thoughts from the linear and the logical – we can become wellsprings of originality.

To innovate, you need to move from the known to the unknown. You also need to hold on to you beliefs lightly so that what you believe doesn’t block the view of what you might find out. The number-one hazard for innovators is getting stuck in “the tar pits of knowledge”. While knowledge can free us to imagine new-to-the-world ideas, it can also trap us into believing opportunities are smaller than they are.

Five strategies that can help trigger new ideas:

  1. Think in Metaphors – Thinking about problems metaphorically moves your thinking from the literal to the abstract, so you can more freely on a different plane.

  1. Think in Pictures – Many people assume Einstein was a logical, left-brain thinker, but he was actually the opposite. Rather than using mathematics or language to crack a tough problem, he preferred to think in pictures and spatial relationships. He recognized that visual thinking can strip a problem down to its essence, leading to profoundly simple conclusions that ordinary language might not be able to reach. The problem is, our brains build up patterns of experience that make it hard to think in new ways. Your best shot at clearing this hurdle is not to try and jump it, but to go around it: start from a different place – a place that doesn’t make any sense. Better yet, think of the worst place you could possibly start, and start there. By following the trail from the worst idea to a workable idea, you can avoid being imprisoned by old patterns.
  1. Poach from Other Domains – Voltaire said, “originality is nothing but judicious limitation.” For example, Gutenberg got the idea for the printing press from watching the mechanics of a wine press.
  1. Force Connections by Introducing Two Unrelated Ideas – Don’t fall in love with your first idea. As Peter Drucker says, “The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash of divergent opinions and out of serious consideration of the competing alternatives.” Effective decision-makers disregard conventional wisdom and instead work to create disagreement and dissension. It is in the tension between competing ideas that we come to understand the true nature of a problem and start to see possibilities for a better answer.
  1. Reverse the Polarity – Start by listing some assumptions about the problem. Now reverse the assumptions and think – what would it take to make these true?

Originality doesn’t come from factual knowledge, but nor does it come from suppressing factual knowledge: it comes from the exposure of factual knowledge to the animating force of imagination.