Keep the lights on…

Idea generators

When and how do you come up with your best ideas?

Do they come at random to you? Do you have to put your idea-hat on to think of something new? How about a special place where you retreat and just squeeze your brain for ideas?

My guess is that it’s all and none of the above at the same time, and that the swing between a conscious, well planned idea time and random idea generation sessions would be fairly big depending on who you ask to.

Oddly enough, for me the best time is… when I’m in meetings or attending conferences!


This is how it works.

Naturally, when I’m in the audience, I always try my best to pay attention to the speaker(s). It can be a small size team meeting, or a huge business event, it doesn’t really make any difference.

Consistently however, and pretty soon into the event, my mind start wandering off into lateral, although usually not disconnected, thoughts.

For years my daily routine has been filled with endless meetings, involving sitting through lots of presentations and pitches, some in person but many through phone/video conferences, so I guess there is a degree of fatigue involved into my idea generation behaviour.

Slowly but surely I started to realise that a pattern was building whereby, as the speaker illustrated the material and the point of view, my brain would begin a journey of its own.

Suddenly, without conscious effort and whilst still paying full attention to what was said and shown, ideas would start forming, perspectives getting into focus and novel observations take place.

Sometimes related to the topic being discussed in the meeting, other times completely different.

The experience was interestingly peculiar, because connection and branching happened almost effortlessly, without any planning and certainly with no pre-defined pattern.

Especially at in-person presentations and events, this process would be very fulfilling, providing a subliminal rush of energy and possibilities, but also rather tiring, as I would try to concurrently pay attention, scan the audience for reactions and feed my idea generation engine.

Much to my surprise, I found that this on-the-side brain activity actually enhanced my experience of the event, almost completing its effectiveness by establishing a stronger giver-receiver link.

“Good and engaging presenters push your mind to expand on the things being said”

A good and engaging presenter usually pushes your mind to expand on the things she says. In addition, if the material being used is also good, you have a chance to imagine how a story could be crafted around it in a way that would bring the message even more relevantly to the audience without changing much of the content — I call it “reshaping form and context over content”.

But, and this was a big surprise, for me the magic happened when the presenter and/or the materials weren’t particularly good! When that (often, as it turns out) happens, far from causing an attention failure or a disconnection, it actually fosters and accelerates my idea generation process.

The brain would be flooded with tag-lines, words, visuals and a million ideas about how to improve the presentation, on a scale almost too big to take in. Often it would be about painting “what if” and “why not” scenarios, other times it would be about digging deeper into a certain aspect, overlook marginal remarks and sketch out a whole different proposition and ultimate summation.

I would rush to my notebook and furiously scribble notes, hints, charts and crude drawings, desperately trying to capture this wealth of “personal brainstorm” before it was gone, hoping to be able to recall the thought process at a later date, and maybe even share some of those ideas back with the presenter and the audience.

Imagining how the content being shared could be brought to life from different angles and perspectives, how things not being said could actually be more important than the ones that were, and to how what was presented as a minor detail, or sometimes left out altogether, could actually have been positioned as core.

Most of the times, though, I would end up not sharing much of my mind’s flight with anybody else, choosing to channel those observation, recommendations and crazy ideas to the other, rational part of me, and potentially turn them into actionable projects at some later stage.

With time I learned how to cherish those opportunities, as small scale but extremely valuable impromptu brainstorming sessions with myself, providing endless topics and ideas for future blog posts, articles, books or even business initiatives.

Now that I have dramatically reduced the number of conferences and meetings I have to attend, I found that I could still initiate my idea storms using surrogate triggers, like for example a boring television program or a particularly unremarkable TED speech.

Next it would probably be a virtual reality experience where robotics speakers talk to an AI audience, and I just happen to be there, probably as a janitor!


I write about leadership and business practices. This post is an excerpt from my book Leader$hip, an insider guide. Please share.

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