How to have ideas – guidance for engineers and other humans

Sketching out ideas for a dissemination plan

When I’m asked, you know, at a cocktail party or some other social setting, ‘what exactly do you do’ I say ‘I train engineers to be more creative’. This is a great statement to use because: it feels good to say; it is reasonably close to the truth; and it is short enough to enable my interlocutors to decide quickly if they want to engage further or keep their distance.

For the people that stick around the next question is usually, ‘well how do you do that then’, and I explain I run two courses, ‘how to have ideas’ and ‘how to have better ideas’, the first being a pre-requisite to the second.

This is again only approximatinately true (my course content is usually based on what the learners say they want to cover rather than following a strict syllabus, and the course titles aren’t always as catchy as I’d like) but it keeps the conversation moving.

After further dialogue, I am asked if I have got this all written down somewhere, and this is when I usually get embarrassed, and have to say, ‘no’, because it is all in my head. But not anymore, because now I can point them to the post you are reading, my first attempt to commit an overview of this material to writing.

I usually work with engineers, but my training content I try to make relevant to humans more generally — the only species on this rock that I know of that is capable of creative thought. This post is not a complete guide to how to have ideas (and it doesn’t even touch upon how to have better ideas), but it does at least summarise the key concepts I like to start from when working with people to develop their creative skills and processes. This is how it goes.

Having ideas is a practice

As Leonard Mlodinow explains in his book ‘Elastic — Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World’ humans are capable of top-down ‘analytical’ thinking and bottom-up ‘creative’ thinking. As engineers we tend to have spent years training our analytical ‘muscle’ but haven’t exercised the ‘creative’ muscle. It is there, but it needs training.

I explain to people that they can’t expect to become more creative overnight, but they can put in place strategies and habits, and practise the skills that will help them be more creative over time.

Ideas are new connections between existing elements in the mind

There are lots of definitions of what an idea is, but this is one I find people can work with because it provides two obvious courses of action to improve our idea generation: to change what information we have to mind; and to change how we form new connections between those elements.

There is a great book by James Webb Young called ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ in which he says idea generation is analogous to using a kaleidoscope: the bits of glass represent information in the mind, and the action of turning the kaleidoscope represents the formation of new connections. I coined the term ‘Kalideascope’ which some people find useful as an aide-memoir and most people find difficult to spell.

Gather information in the moment

Some of the information that we have to mind when we are having ideas is that which is provided by the context in which we are working, usually a problem that needs to be solved.

Straightforward questions provide a wealth of inputs to our creative process: who is the user; what are the political, environmental and social contexts; what is the timeframe; what are the materials? The words in a design brief can be unpacked to yield lots of different meanings. Subjective terminology leads to questions, which in turn provide us with more information that can be the feedstock of ideas.

We can access this information by researching the context and by talking to people. When we receive it I suggest we need to surrround ourselves with it to maximise th likelihood of unexpected connections forming.

Build your professional palette

As well as the information we gather in the moment, we can also draw upon the information that we have steadily been storing our 100 Terabyte capacity brains since birth. A significant category of information already in our mind is the knowledge that we have about the industry we work in. For a structural engineer this category includes knowledge of different types of structure, different construction materials and their properties, construction methods and examples of existing projects. This the sort of knowledge base we build up as we work — I call it our professional palette.

Having good knowledge of what exists is a very important part of the creative process. When I interviewed 50 engineers from a range of engineering disciplines about their design process (part of a research project funded by the Royal Academy of Engineers), the majority told me that in practice their new ideas were usually existing ideas established in one context that they apply in a new context. In other words their new ideas are an evolution rather than a revolution.

To ready ourselves for creative work, we need to keep our professional palette fresh by being keeping up with new developments in our own and related fields. And then at the time when we are working on a creative project we need a way to bring these examples to mind. That can easily be done by keeping a digital scrapbook or posting examples on the wall. I prefer anything that will help others share this rich resource.

Do other stuff

Our outside interests (in other words, anything we are knowledgeable about from outside the problem field in which we are working) bring two things to the creative process. The first is they diversify the field of existing elements in the mind from which we can forge new ideas. I train engineers in companies; I also teach swing dancing to festival goers — two very different contexts but you would be surprised how much each of these different areas of my practice inform creativity in the other.

Secondly outside interests provide us access to different paradigms from which to view a problem. In any context that we are working from there exist a set of assumptions, conventions and limiting beliefs. This the working paradigm of the context. The paradigm allows us to quickly understand and work with familiar situation, rather than having to start from first principles each time. But the paradigm can also limit our thinking about what might be possible.

If we try however to consider the problem field from the perspective of someone with different perespctives and assumptions, we can shift the paradigm and open up new possibilities for thinking. So for the structural engineer whose hobby is doing gymnastics, how might the problem of how to bridge a gorge be solved with a long run up?

Draw it out

Doing a drawing of the problem space in which we are trying to have ideas is a great way to both gather information (filling the Kalideascope) and form new connections (turning the Kalideascope). To do a drawing we have to ask questions: how long, how wide, where? Our drawings can be sketches of how a thing looks. They can also be systems diagrams, showing inputs, outputs and processes. The act of drawing something out forces us to interpret the ambiguous and ask questions about the implied meanings of words in the design brief. The answers to these questions are new information on which to build ideas.

To do a drawing we also have to understand how this bit joins to that, and how the thingy we are working with connects neighbouring thingies. We have to draw relationships. In a very visual way we start to see and thereby form the connections that can be the start of a new idea.

Ask what if

This technique is by far the most popular among the engineers I train and I have my colleague Ben Godber to thank for it. I used to call it ‘Change the Frame’. I would have to start with a rambling explanation of frames, the perspectives from which we consider the world, and then I would ask people to think about how they could change their frame for the problem. Then, as we were walking into run a workshop, Ben said, ‘you know you could just get them to ask ‘what if’ and get them to fill in the blank’. As in: what if money were no object; what if there were no budget; what if it had to be built in a day; what if it had to be built without an instruction manual?

All these questions force us to allow new potential options into our frame of consideration, allowing new ideas to arise. I think it’s popular because it’s simple — thanks Ben.

Give others time to think

Talking to others is another idea generation technique that works on both filling and turning the Kalideascope. A creative problem shared is an information pool doubled from which to form new connections. But aside from pooling resources the act of telling someone about our ideas can in itself stimulate creative thought, but the key is in how the listener behaves.

In her best-selling book ‘Time to Think’ Nancy Kline says we do our best thinking in conversation with others, but it happens only when give each other time to shape and articulate our thoughts. Nick Zienau, another of my colleagues, teaches a conversational technique called ‘Catalytic Style’, based on the research of social scientists Blake and Mouton, that is designed to help people express things they know inside but can’t quite articulate. It requires us simply to give the person talking our full attention, to give brief summaries of what we are hearing and, if they get stuck, to ask simple open questions. The steps are quick to learn, take time to master and have become an invaluable part of my idea generation toolkit.

Plan to day dream

At the start of my workshops I ask people when do they have their best ideas. I have yet to hear someone say ‘at my desk while doing my work’. Our ability to think creatively is what is going to set us apart from the machines at our next job interview, and so we should find ways to build into our day opportunities for the creative thought for which we are uniquely capable.

I ask people to notice when they have their best ideas and then to plan their days to give creative thought its time. In his book ‘When’, one of my favourite authors, Dan Pink, cites research that shows that the majority of people do their best analytical thinking towards the start of the day, and their best creative thinking towards the end.

I’ve noticed I have my best ideas while cycling and so I’ve built this into my day. I do two hours of more analytical work before 9am in a coffee shop, and then I cycle 40 minutes into the office. It’s usually during this ride when I have my best ideas about how to solve any problems in the morning’s analytical work. During this time I can let me mind wander over the problem, and I’m free to notice when a new idea pops up.

User warning: this technique only works if I don’t check email or social media before I depart. Otherwise my active brain takes over and obsesses about this new input and is unable to go on standby while my subconscious does the creative work.

Nurture the creative system

Paradigm shift spolier alert. So far I have been talking largely about building the ability of individuals to have ideas, but as leading psychology of creativity researcher Cskiszentmihalyi points out, creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in the context of a culture of existing ideas and in a society that judges the acceptability of those ideas. If an idea is judged acceptable it is somehow kept and becomes a reference for the next round of idea generation. If it not accepted the idea is forgotten.

The paradigm shift is to think about building nurturing this whole system, not just the creativity of the individual. I have written a separate post on this topic (Nine ways to build creativity in your organisation) but when you boil it down there are three components in the residue: create a working environment in which a wide range of information and new ideas are shared to feed the creative individuals; create a social environment in which people listen to each other’s ideas in a supportive way; and most importantly, develop a habit of sharing the outputs so they can be the reagents in other people’s creative thinking.

So there it is, a digest of my teaching and training on how to have ideas. For completeness I’d like to return us to the cocktail party scenario with which this post started. In another of Dan Pink’s books, To Sell is Human, he provides ‘cocktail party’ summaries of each of his chapters, just enough to whet the appetite without being a bore. Here is mine for how to have ideas.

Having ideas is a uniquely human skill but it is a skill that needs training. An idea is simply a new connection between existing information in the mind. To build our creative practice we need to consider what information we put into our heads and how we stimulate new connections. Some of the information comes from researching the context in which we are working, other information we build up over time by keeping mental or, better, physical catalogues of information related to our work. We should be strategic about keeping a wide range of inputs flowing in.

[Pause for a slurp of cocktail]

Our brains can’t help but chew over creative problems, but sometime we need to help things along. We can do this actively by talking to others, by drawing the problem and by considering the problem from different perspectives. And we can support our creative thinking in a more passive ways by giving ourselves distraction-free time for day dreaming.

One last thing (hand raised, Colombo-style) before you head for the buffet — creativity doesn’t happen on its own but in a cultural and social context, so to have ideas you need to build a culture of socialising ideas.

That’s it. You can go now.