Good invention ideas come from nowhere only in fairytales. In real life, you need to spend some time thinking beforehand. It may take a few hours or as much as a couple of years. Tim Berners-Lee worked for ten years to create the World Wide Web. He never imagined it would become such a grand-scale project. He started it just to organize his own data. After a couple of years, he scrapped it and started to work on something else. It took him ten years to get the full vision of the World Wide Web.
Brainstorming is a good method for coming up with a solution. There are tons of brainstorming software programs, but a pen and paper can also be helpful. Write down the topic and go on with the words you associate it with, describe every idea that comes into your mind. It should look like a mind map.
Put away your perfectionist’s habits for a while. Start working on an idea even if it doesn’t seem so good. Ideas are rarely good on their own; it is the creator and some time that makes them so. If you reject it at the beginning, you may deprive yourself of a great invention.
In his book, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From. The Natural History of Innovation’, Stephen Johnson says: ‘If you look at history, innovation doesn't come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect’. Thus, in order to be creative, you need to be surrounded by people. Great ideas are often born when you are having an argument. Working with a team, you have more chances to come up with something creative rather than when you are working alone. Likewise, you can just ask your friends what they think about your idea.
In terms of companies, most new product ideas come from such internal sources as R&D (research and development) departments and other employees. Besides, the external sources like customers, distributors and suppliers, competitors, consultants and other experts can impact the process as well.
Mostly, new ideas come from rearranging and reconnecting pieces of what others have already done. Johnson refers to the concept of ‘the adjacent possible’: a great innovation of tomorrow is built from today’s stuff.
You can observe a typical example of rearranging in music, in all the thousands of 4-chord songs. You can play hundreds of the greatest pop songs that are using the same four chords. Some rock bands play their songs using the same 4 chords but with a different tempo, rhythm, or in a different order, which may seem original, but it is still the same four chords. So, like Stephen said, ‘let others build on your ideas, borrow, recycle, re-invent’.
According to the Oxford dictionary, an innovative idea is an advanced and original one. However, not all people are ready for this sort of thing. It’s been this way throughout the world’s history. At first, people didn’t understand and were even scared of cars and planes. Like Andy Dunn said, ‘The history of innovation is the story of ideas that seemed dumb at the time’. Yet, here we are. Re-inventing is good, but don’t be afraid of presenting your completely new and bold idea to the world.
Sources of Inspiration
Continuing the topic of getting ideas from external sources, we need to emphasize that you can also get inspired by them. Some people are inspired by the Mighty Thor, and others, by ordinary mortals. So, many actors and musicians have made their way per aspera ad astra.
Every problem you encounter now has been already overcome by others. If you got stuck, don’t give up. Think of someone who inspires you and ask yourself, ‘If they did it, why can’t I?’
Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t do it’, start working on ‘what if..?’ questions. If you have been thinking a lot about some problem and still do not see the answer, it may be the red flag that you need to take a break and change something.
The first thing you should keep in mind is that routine is the sworn enemy of inspiration. For example, travelling is a perfect way to get out of the routine and discover new sources of inspiration. Seeing other countries with people of another culture is one of the best options, but if your budget is tight, going to the nearest city will also work out. At least, visit some new cafes and enjoy coffee or another drink at a new place. Diversify your life with hobbies. Try doing what you’ve always wanted to try but for some reason haven’t done.
Do not be afraid of failing. We learn from our mistakes. Sometimes, a mistake can turn out to be not a mistake at all. Sometimes, what you think is a loss could become a win.
One more inspiring thing is art. Listen to music. Try a genre different from what you usually listen to. Read books, go to the cinema, theatre, concert, gallery, an exhibition, etc., and find new ways for art to inspire you.
You can find inspiration while drawing your ideas. It doesn’t matter if your drawing is hideous, this is not the point. The point is, the process can set the cogs turning inside your head. Once you’ve started, it’s hard to stop. You continue generating ideas and thus getting to the core of what you really want. You may find something you didn’t even know was there. Drawing also filters the ‘rabbit hole’ ideas – those that are impossible to bring to life. So, if an idea seems perfect at the beginning, try drawing it to reveal potential execution issues.
Do you remember the ‘ideas are born in discussion’ thing above? Sketches facilitate it a lot. Just because they are so loose, they help other people generate new ideas and gather them in one place so that they don’t get lost.
Also, you can find inspiration in quotes. Here are some devoted to ideas and innovations:
The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible. ~ David Ogilvy
There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. ~ George Orwell
The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones. ~ John Maynard Keynes
You can't allow tradition to get in the way of innovation. There's a need to respect the past, but it's a mistake to revere your past. ~ Bob Iger
Innovation can't just happen within the walls of your own organization. ~ Lynne Doughtie
The Bottom Line
An idea for a new invention may come from the most unexpected sources. It may only happen once in a lifetime that it comes from nowhere. However, it requires a lot of time and work to make your idea great.
Don’t hesitate to break the rules. Quite often, it is the best way to create an original thing. Don’t be anxious about mistakes. In some cases, they can make your product even better than you initially intended. If someone tells you ‘this is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard’, keep on working. Remember to expand your horizons. You never know when inspiration will hit you.