Ideation via Decomposition and Combinatorics #59 #cong18


In my opinion ideation – the generation of ideas – is a skill that can be learned, not a gift you have to be born with.

Everyone can come up with good ideas and the more you practice generating ideas, the better you get at it.

True “bolt from the blue” inspiration comes naturally to some but in my experience, the more you practice ideation following a methodology, the more “bolts from the blue” and moments of inspiration you will have.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. The ability to have good ideas is a skill that can be learned.
  2. The more you practice idea generation, the more “bolts from the blue” you will have
  3. It is not really important what method for generating ideas you adopt. The critical thing is to have a method for generating them.
  4. Having a method for ideation makes inspiraiton optional. You are literally never “out” of ideas. In moments when inspiration fails, you can always fall back on your method.

About Sean McGrath:

Sean McGrath is a 35+ year veteran of the IT industry. He holds a first class honours degree in computer science from Trinity College Dublin. He is co-founder and CTO of Propylon, where he now heads up the R+D group focusing on computational solutions in the legal and regulatory domains.

He is the author of three books on markup languages published by Prentice Hall and has lectured in Trinity College Dublin and with the Open University.

He runs one of Ireland’s longest lived blogs at: Sean lives in Galway with his wife and three children. When not working in IT he is an avid amateur musician.

Contacting Sean McGrath:

You can contact Sean by email.

By Sean McGrath

“Has anybody any ideas?”. How often have you heard that? How often have you said it while talking to yourself in your head about some problem or other?

The phrase “Has anybody any ideas?” itself creates the sense that ideas are things that you either have or have not got at some moment in time. If you don’t have any ideas, then, well, you are out of luck. Shrug shoulders. Hope that inspiration strikes…

In my experience it is rarely the case that the only option is to wait and hope for a good idea to come along. It is almost always possible to fall back on a method that generates ideas. Most of them will be rubbish, but that’s ok. The point is to generate ideas and then evaluation them. This is a proactive approach to “force” ideas to come along as opposed to a reactive approach waiting for them to arrive.

Think about how writers write. Be it novels or poetry or songs or comedy sketches. The vast majority of them do it by cranking out material using some method and then they sift through it for the good stuff. Maebh Binchy used to start her character sketches by giving the characters birthdays. Why? Well, think of all the attributes humans have: birthdays, hair colour, height…etc. These are all variables. Get a list of these variables and start assigning values to variables and pretty soon, you have an idea for a character….But the important thing here is that you got it via a reliable, repeatable process. A strategy for generating ideas for characters.

The musician/producer Brian Eno coined the phrase “Oblique Strategies” for his method. In this case, the variables are little suggestions e.g. “work at a different speed”, “Increase something”, “repeat something” written in index cards. Shuffle the deck, draw a few cards, and voila, you have a set of constraints/concepts that can fire off your though processes for solving the problem at hand. i.e. “What if we ran the motor at halfspeed?”, “What if we added an extra solar panel on the shed?”, “what if we took that line from the chorus and repeated it as the first line of the verse?” etc. etc.

The mathematician George Pólya wrote a book about his way of generating ideas to solve problems called “How to Solve It”. It contains a collection of idea generation gems such as: “restate the problem in your own words”, “look for hidden patterns”, “find some way to draw a picture”, “challenge an assumption”.

Again the point here is that you can take these suggestions either one at a time or in a group and apply them mechanically to the generation of ideas.

The mathematically minded reader will perhaps already have mapped these examples to the concepts of permutation and combination in mathematics. Simple put, if you have a set of variables and a set of possible values for these variables, then you can systematically crank out every possible permutation/combination. Furthermore, as the number of variables you are working with increases, the number of permutation/combinations increases exponentially.

It is therefore very easy to mechanically create an idea-generation “machine” for any given problem where you have endless amount of ideas to work through….

…Of course, most of these will not be useful ideas but once you can create a steady stream of them, anxiety about being out of ideas goes away and you can concentrate on finding the good ones.

One of the most powerful idea generators in my experience is to take something that is currently variable and make it fixed. Example: “What if all the contract clauses were exactly the same size?”. “What if all wiring was the same color?”. Another excellent one is its inverse. Take something that is fixed and make it variable. Example: “What if the handle on the window folded upwards?”, “What if the second chorus was different from the first?” etc.

One final one. Take some aspect of the problem that is not seen as a variable at all and make it a variable. Challenge the assumptions that underlie something being fixed as opposed to variable. Example: “What if customers could have two names instead of one?”, “What if the cup could also be the lid of another cup?” etc.

Good ideas are hard to find. That will never change. But there really is no need to ever be “out of ideas”. Just pick an idea generating method, using concepts similar to the ones mentioned here. Crank them out by the dozen or by the thousand. Then pick out the good ones.

If you are anything like me, this availability of and endless stream of raw ideas is a greatly liberating one that reduces anxiety which, in turn, makes it easier to spot the good ideas when they come along.

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