Reader mailbag: Ideation Loop

A reader asks about ideation and I end up talking about doing research – and Graham Wallas

I told someone I was researching ideation. The response, “Hmm… seems a bit macabre “. They were joking about suicidal ideation.
Ideation as I meant it (the creation of ideas with business-value) and suicidal ideation are related: both thrive on cyclical thought patterns. Loops, be they virtuous or malignant.
So this question from a list subscriber (and startup world raconteur) caught my attention:
What makes an effective ideation loop?
He also asks and comments:
Should I create an ideation journal? Do you believe in working one’s‘ ideation muscle’? (This thought is akin to James Altucher stating we should write down 10 ideas a day!)
Leading the witness? Perhaps, but I’ll bite.
I’ll just focus on the first question, but I can answer all three in generalities:
  • to the question’s presupposition that you can make an ideation loop effective (that’s a non-answer but I’ll return to it)
  • to creating an ideation journal – and to otherwise developing the ideation muscle, a la James Altucher
No, I have no “hard science” scientific proof of any of the above. I don’t think there is any, at least nothing comprehensive, which is a reflection of the inchoate status of neuroscientific research.
What exists instead is:
  • quantitative social science research
  • quantitative “business research” (aka “market research”)
  • convincing, non-quantitative testimony based in a body of work everyone agrees is excellent
  • unstructured individual research (this is what most of us do in our work and daily life; it usually starts with

Using at least two of the forms of research is what makes an effective ideation loop.

It’s not everything, but research is a sine qua non of an ideation loop. Here’s the complete list: 

Four things, from most difficult to least:
– Research (usually solitary)
– Hyper-broad and hyper-focus
– Subconscious contemplation
– Brain exercise (Altucher’s 10 ideas a day, Worst Possible Idea, writing with your non-dominant hand, etc., etc. – stuff)
– Diversity of viewpoints
The fifth element is the easiest and what we most often lean on – we call it brainstorming, peer review, brain swarming, etc. We are group animals and would have gone extinct like our hominid cousin-species millions of years ago if we did ideate in groups. But we over-rely on this technique, which is better at consensing on the most acceptable ideas and less good at evoking more original ideas.
That’s partly why research is so important. 
Because social science research is more confined to academia, it may seem less valuable than business research. The value of the latter is beyond question – Gartner is an organization exclusively devoted to producing business research and has a market cap of nearly 14 billion USD. Gartner’s primary approach is to “follow the money” (their secondary approach is to “follow the tech sector” and that one’s paid off too) [1] 
And that’s a sound methodology for creating business research (following the money).
An excellent example of such market research: the content marketing consultancy Hinge has done business research among B2B professional services firms that uncovered two interesting conclusions:
But social scientists can go beyond what “hard scientists” can do – devise and test theories that explain aspects of our behavior, including creativity, not necessarily reflected in financial data. 
If you look at almost all social science (ie academic) research on creativity and ideation, it points to one source: Graham Wallas, who wrote the Art of Thought in 1926. For example, Mark Runco, Director of Creativity Research and Programming at SOU. Mark says:
The classic 1926 theory of process from Graham Wallas is still widely cited and used. It includes Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification stages. Research since Wallas has defined Preparation such that it includes problem finding, and more specifically, problem identification and then problem definition (and re-definition).
That book greatly influenced A Technique for Getting Ideas, about which I won’t go into detail here. But it contains the best formula I have come across for an effective ideation loop:
  • define a problem in small pieces
  • conduct structured research around (broad and narrow)
  • try hard to solve the problem, to the point of exhaustion
  • ignore the problem completely, and let the subconscious contemplate
  • let a solution come
  • present the solution to other people
  • repeat
My best,

Footnotes & Errata
  1. Interestingly, Gartner’s market cap has doubled in the past 24 months; this may be due to changes in Google’s search algorithms amounting to the general devaluation of fluff content. That’s an SEO research problem for someone to pursue. But Gartner’s fortunes have risen as corporate firms have had to invest in deep research – and thereby innovation – to fend off an ever more formidable startup tech world. Yay.