My obsession with ideas typically revolves around the having part. However, a conversation with my college-aged son who shared with me what might be a good business idea he had reminded me that what comes after having an idea is just as important. So I’d like to share with you what I shared with my son: the four immediate steps I take when I have what I think might be a good idea.
1. Capture The Idea, Liberate Your Brain
The first thing I do is write the idea down. It may not be a complete idea yet, but that’s ok. Just write it out as best you can. Don’t judge what you’re writing, don’t craft it, just write it out. Could only be a sentence.
Writing it down frees your brain from trying to remember it. I remember a study that University Of Chicago professor, Sian Beilock, conducted in her terrific book, “Choke,” where she found that people were less likely to choke in a stressful situation if they wrote down what they were afraid of in advance. Her research suggests that you effectively “off load” the fear out of your brain. Weird, right?
Well, I believe a similar thing happens with ideas, only we’re not freeing the brain from remembering a fear, we are freeing the brain from remembering the original idea. That means more of your brain power can be used for what comes next in the process.
2. Evaluate: Get Beyond The Idea Intoxication
When I first have an idea I am wildly biased in favor of it. There is no greater mental narcotic than having an idea. But when it comes to its evaluation, that high can be a problem.
Once I get the idea down on paper, I leave it for a day. Cleanse the mental pallet, if you will. The next day I will try to remember it. If I can’t remember it, how good could it have been? By the way, The Beatles used this method when John and Paul wrote songs together. They’d write a bunch on Tuesday and then if they couldn’t remember them on Wednesday they figured the songs weren’t that great.
If I can remember the idea, I go back and read the idea as I wrote it the day prior, now having the perspective of a new day and not under the influence of any mental narcotics.
Are you still as excited about the idea? Your gut, visceral reaction should be trusted. It’s your built-in short cut for evaluating innovation.
If not, let it die right then and there. But if you are still excited, it’s time to move to Step 3.
3. Develop: Build Out The Idea
Now it’s time to see what this idea is all about. What are all the ways the idea can manifest? What other supporting ideas does it inspire? What should you call it? Go broad, we’ll narrow later.
Creativity rarely shows up for appointments. It’ll happen whenever it damn well pleases. So you need to be ready for it to strike at any time. I use Notes on my Mac because it’s super easy to open up a new note for each idea and it’s even easier to add comments and builds to the original idea right from my phone, keeping the idea nicely contained in one place but available on all my devices.
When I learned that walking increases one’s creativity powers by up to 60% , I started walking 3 miles every morning (well, almost every morning). I bring my iPhone with me and “dedicate” my walk to a particular idea I'm working on. After about a half mile the ideas start flowing. As they do, I pull out my phone which is already opened to the correct Note and I voice-dictate the idea into the corresponding Note and keep on walking. No crafting, no typing, no judging, no over-thinking. Just get it in there and keep walking.
This step is all about more. That’s it. And it’s not just while walking. Ideas will hit you anywhere - on the train, in the office, at your son’s game, etc. Be ready. Or try and force coincidences by using an app like StumbleUpon. Treat it like a game where you keep the idea in mind and then challenge yourself to find the relevance to your idea of each random article you, well, stumble upon. A great way to force divergence in your thinking.
But keep posting new comments and expansions however you can and from wherever you are. You will hopefully end up with a laundry list of ideas building out the original idea in just a couple days.
Now that you've gone wide, it's time to go narrow.
4. Sharpen: A Fresh Articulation Of The Idea
Let's get this idea into a form where others can evaluate it and help you make it better.
What I do is read the now-expanded, perhaps slightly chaotic Note dedicated to the idea from top to bottom. It’s funny, you will read comments and builds you don’t remember even dictating into the phone. It’s like having a conversation with yourself.
Anyway, start reordering the comments. The first pass is to put the useless comments (and there will be many) at the bottom of the Note. Don’t delete them, just get them out of the way for now. Next, start grouping the thoughts into related areas of the idea and deleting any redundant ideas.
Now, armed with all of this, write up the idea again fresh, including all of your worthy expansions and inspirations. It doesn’t have to be entirely baked quite yet. Think of it as a one-page “treatment” for your idea that you can share with others on your team or experts in your field to get considered reactions and new builds.
The result is going from a half-baked idea to a three-quarters-baked idea. You’ve probably caught and addressed all the obvious issues with it - issues you were too "idea high" to notice when you first had the idea. And you’ve shown that the idea has some legs, which builds confidence in others when considering it.
Better yet, if you’ve made it this far without killing the idea yourself, you’ve probably got a pretty great idea.