Secrets of Idea Development

The well-kept secrets of idea development

In the last column, we discussed the five levels of creativity (and the related types of creativity tools) necessary to produce outstanding innovation. One of those levels is Idea Development.

Unfortunately, few people know that this level even exists, and even fewer know how to master it. Why? The inner workings of Idea Development have been kept secret by innovation experts and creative professionals. I only became aware of this level of creativity after two years working in the field. Once I realized it existed — and how important it is — I did a lot of experiments and discovered the principles of Idea Development. Would you want to learn more about these well-kept secrets?

The 4 Ground Rules of Idea Development

In his book Applied Imagination, Alex F. Osborn stated four ground rules that, if followed when brainstorming, will give you more and better ideas. In Idea Development, you need to follow a similar set of rules to ensure good results:

  1. No killing of ideas. Defer rational judgment until later.
  2. Go for quality. Take your time.
  3. The more meaningful the better. Design realistic, meaningful and value-adding idea concepts.
  4. Combine and improve on ideas.

The first and last ground rules of Idea Development are the same as those for Ideation, but the second and third are significantly different. The second ground rule of Ideation is “Go for quantity. Quantity breeds quality”; the third is “The wilder the better. Shoot for wild, crazy, funny, silly, off-the-wall ideas.”

Application of the four ground rules:

Strictly adhere to these four ground rules whenever you engage in Idea Development.

The First Law of Idea Development

The art professor Betty Edwards wrote, “Most artists keep about one in twenty drawings, sometimes fewer than that — a little known fact, I believe.” Likewise, Ralph Eggleston of Pixar Animation Studios said, “For each story, we produce thousands and thousands of drawings. 90 per cent don’t make it to the final product.” Clearly, creative professionals seem to produce many, many ideas, some of which they keep and most of which they throw away. Correspondingly, the first Law of Idea Development, which I call the “Creative Law of the Vital Few”, is:

“80% of the value of Ideation is contained in only 20% of the ideas. Your job is to discover those vital few ideas that contain the seeds of a truly great idea.”

Application of the first law:

If you have 500 raw ideas from an ideation session, then roughly only 100 of those have the potential to become truly great idea concepts. Note that the 80/20 ratio is not fixed in stone, and will vary depending on the challenge and the ideators working on it. You may find that your ratio is more like 75/30 or 90/15. Exceptional teams, working on a challenge well-suited to them, or a fluent individual creative thinker may produce more than 40% useable ideas when ideating.

The Second Law of Idea Development

“Everything is connected with everything else,” noted Leonardo da Vinci. The second law of idea development is the “Creative Law of the Intersection”, also called the “Creative Law of Connecting the Dots”:

“The most powerful ideas can often be found in the intersection between seemingly unrelated ideas, concepts or disciplines. Design meaningful idea concepts by combining interesting ideas that you feel seem to fit together. Connect the dots, and see what you find in the intersection.”

Application of the second law:

“A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Connect seemingly unrelated ideas to arrive at realistic, valuable idea concepts. Find two or three ideas that intrigue you and seem to connect, then combine these intriguing ideas to create an original, meaningful idea concept in line with Steve Jobs’ advice: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

The Third Law of Idea Development

“Often those ideas that initially seem the least relevant become the most significant ones of all because they point to something you have been completely overlooking”, said the American creativity coach Roger von Oech. Of course, the ideas that seem the least relevant of all are the wild, crazy, silly ones. The third law of Idea Development, called “The Creative Law of X Steps Removed”, helps transform wild ideas into relevant, meaningful idea concepts.

“The most powerful idea concepts are often not your first creative thoughts, or even your second, but those that are ‘X steps removed’ from your original idea. Design meaningful ideas by stepping at least three steps away from a wild idea.”

Application of the third law:

Tame a wild idea by moving it a few steps away. You can do this either by taking sequential steps that build on each other, or by taking parallel steps. Note that the number of steps to take varies depending on the nature of the idea and your methods, but may be anywhere from 1 to 8. At Thinkergy, we have created a number of creativity tools that are specifically designed to easily tame wild ideas.

Conclusion: Follow these ground rules, and these laws, and you will find that your raw ideas blossom into good, meaningful idea concepts.

Do you want to experience how these abstract principles play out in a real-life innovation project? Or do you want to learn more in detail about the well-kept secrets of idea developments (and the creativity tools that we employ to bring them to life) in one of our edutaining yet systematic innovation training courses? Drop us a note to tell us more about your wants and needs.


© Dr. Detlef Reis 2014.

This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on April 24 2014.