How ideas happen

I recently came up with a good idea. What I did to make it better than my others, I couldn’t tell you. Transport myself to a state where thoughts readily manifest themselves? Wait for the stars to align? Be a good person?

I didn’t know it then, but I likely navigated a course described more than 70 years ago in a little advertising book called “A Technique for Producing Ideas”  by James Webb Young. Once I stumbled upon this classic, I was thirsty to understand the process I followed subconsciously and what marketers do all the time in the pursuit of ideas.

Just for the record, my good idea was to create our own theoretical Mount Rushmore for the radio industry, which quickly went viral on social media and eventually landed us on The Howard Stern Show live to present Howard with a plaque and tell millions about our company, CRN.

Step One. Young theorizes that ideas are nothing more than new combinations of old, existing elements, or pieces of knowledge. The first of his five basic steps is gathering raw materials—not only specific information about the project and product, but also general information about the world around you and the people who make up that world (and presumably might be a target for whatever you’re selling).

Step Two. Then Young recommends going through a mental digestive process, in which you take bits of material and examine them from every perspective. “Take one fact and turn it this way and that; look at it from different lights and feel for the meaning,” Young says. “Bring two facts together and see how they fit.” He suggests to “listen” for the meaning—don’t “look” for it. This places the mind in a very different vantage point.

Step Three. This is a step for which I typically feel great discomfort, so I was pleased to see Young list it as an essential part of the process. “Drop the whole subject and put it completely out of your mind,” Young says at this stage. “Turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.” In his book, Young cites the example of Sherlock Holmes stopping right in the middle of a case and dragging Watson off to a concert. While it irritated Watson, author Arthur Conan Doyle, as a creator himself, “knew the creative processes,” he writes.

Step Four. Young believes ideas will appear and come to you when you stop straining to find them. The “Eureka” instant when the idea appears is his Step Four.

Step Five. This is a hard step to tackle, especially for those with inflated egos. The idea must be tested internally, and as Young observes, “It is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth.” Yet Young argues the process “requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit for the exact conditions or the practical exigencies under which they might work.” Typically, a good idea has a “self-expanding quality; it stimulates those who see it to add to it.”

You’d think a book written before technology, before the Internet, and even before us would lose relevance by 2014. As professionals charged with developing new ideas and obsessed with the art and science of how they happen, Young’s book gives us much to think about as we stare at the bedroom ceiling insistent that the marketing Holy Grail is right in front of us, if only the lights were on.

Jim Alkon is Marketing Director of CRN International (www.crnradio.com), which uses radio differently to solve marketing challenges for major brands. It is based in New Haven, CT, and has offices in New York; Minneapolis; Detroit; Houston; and Hershey, PA.