Inclusive Software
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Inclusive Software

Where Do Ideas Come From?

newsletter #26 | 18-Jul-2017

Ideas are sexy. You get attention and credit if you have good ideas; you and your organization gain success if your ideas really catch on. But there’s not a heck of a lot of focus on where great ideas come from. We just assume they will show up, leaping like a goddess from our foreheads. Consequently we focus all our resources and effort on perfecting these already-generated ideas. It’s time to mature your practice of creating ideas — the stuff that comes before an idea forms.

Where do ideas occur to you? In the shower? While you’re running? Sleeping? Weeding the garden? (This morning my neighbor suggested it’s when he’s procrastinating and thinking about his photography instead of what he should be doing.) Creativity, or coming up with ideas, is very easy when you aren’t trying to actually solve a problem right at the moment. So when you’re in front of the whiteboard explaining your mental roadblock to somebody, when you’re thinking of nothing in the shower, when you’re daydreaming about something else … these are the times when your brain is able to pull concepts together that you otherwise wouldn’t have associated. If you relax your brain, then things will pop out.

Ideas and creativity are the result of your brain associating concepts in your “down time.”

The one drawback to this cognitive behavior is that your brain can only forge new ideas from things that exist within your mind already. And hence the problem with creating products and services arises. Teams only think of solutions that are couched in concepts already familiar to them. Organizations only truly branch out into new areas when there’s a technological breakthrough or a new way to market something. But other human perspectives? Other human approaches to the same problem? These are not part of the ingredients swirling within the minds of those who make product and service decisions.

To make the cognitive fields more fertile, so to speak, teams need to ​stuff their brains with a breadth of perspectives. Teams need a deeper understanding of other people’s thinking styles.

Stuff your brain with a broader set of perspectives.

How do you do this? Collect other people’s reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles via listening sessions. Spend time with this qualitative data understanding the meaning people were trying to convey. Look for patterns. Synthesize the patterns into various forms. (mental model diagram, behavioral audience segments, user stories, journey maps) Then use the results as everlasting opportunity maps, returning to them time and time again to jog your memory and cause that cascade that allows your brain to associate things it wouldn’t have normally — to come up with a great idea.

It’s truly rare to find an organization that gives idea-generation the serious attention that it deserves.

Essays about cognitive empathy, demographic assumptions, and software design

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Indi Young

Indi Young

Freelance problem space researcher helping digital clients find opportunities to support diversity; author & speaker;; cofounder Adaptive Path

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