141 -- Practical techniques for producing profitable ideas
Are you stuck for an idea on your current project? Try running through these pointers to get those creative juices flowing.
Robert W. Bly Consultant
Here is what you should do: Identify the problem, assemble pertinent facts, gather general knowledge, look for combinations, sleep on it, use a checklist, get feed-back, team up, and give new ideas a chance.
Identify the problem
The first step in solving a problem is to know what the problem is. But many of us forge ahead without knowing what it is we are trying to accomplish. Moral: Don't apply a solution before you have taken the time to accurately define the problem.
Assemble pertinent facts
In crime stories, detectives spend most of their time looking for clues. They cannot solve a case with clever thinking alone; they must have the facts. You, too, must have the facts before you can solve a problem or make an informed decision.
Professionals in every field know the importance of gathering specific facts. A scientist planning an experiment checks the abstracts to see what similar experiments have been performed. An author writing a book collects everything he can on the subject, newspaper clippings, photos, official records, transcripts of inter-views, diaries, magazine articles, and so on. A consultant may spend weeks or months digging around a company before coming up with a solution to a major problem.
Keep an organized file of the background material you collect on a project. Review the file before you begin to formulate your solution. If you are a competent typist, use a typewriter or word processor to rewrite your research notes and materials. This step increases your familiarity with the background information and can give you a fresh perspective on the problem. Also, when you type notes you condense a mound of material into a few neat pages that show all the facts at a glance.
Gather general knowledge
In engineering, specific facts have to do with the project at hand. They include the budget, the schedule, the resources available, the customer's specifications, plus knowledge of the products, components, and techniques to be used in completing the project. General knowledge has to do with the expertise you've developed in engineering and business, and includes your storehouse of information concerning life, events, people, science, technology, management, and the world at large.
In most plants, it is the gray haired foreman, the 20-year veteran, that the young engineers turn to when they have problems. This senior worker is able to solve so many problems so quickly not because he is brighter or better educated than others, but because in his 20 years of plant work he has seen those problems-or similar ones before.
You can't match the senior man's experience. But you can accelerate your own education by becoming a student in the many areas that relate to your job. Trade journals are the most valuable source of general engineering knowledge. Subscribe to the journals that relate to your field. Scan them all, and clip and save articles that contain information that may be useful to you. Organize your clipping files for easy access to articles by subject.
Read books in your field and start a reference library. Think back to that 20 year plant foreman if he writes a book on how to troubleshoot problems in a chemical plant, and you buy the book, you can learn in a day or so of reading what it took him 20 years to accumulate. Take some night school courses. Attend seminars, conferences, trade shows. Make friends with people in your field and exchange information, stories, ideas, case histories, technical tips.
Most of the successful professionals I know are compulsive information-collectors. You should be, too.
Look for combinations
Someone once complained to me "There's nothing new in the world. It's all been done before." Maybe. But an idea doesn't have to be something completely new. Many ideas are simply a new combination of existing elements. By looking for combinations, for new relation-ships between old ideas, you can come up with a fresh approach.
The clock-radio, for example, was invented by someone who combined two existing technologies the clock and the radio. Niels Bohr combined two separate ideas-- Rutherford's model of the atom as a nucleus orbited by electrons and Planck's quantum theory to create the modern conception of the atom.
Look for synergistic combinations when you examine the facts. What two things can work together to form a third thing that is a new ideas your chemical engineering work, if you have two devices, and each performs a function you need, can you link them together to create a new invention?
Sleep on it
Putting the problem aside for a time can help you renew your idea producing powers just when you think your creative well has run dry.
But don't resort to this method after only five minutes of puzzled thought. First, you have to gather all the information you can. Next, you need to go over the information again and again as you try to come up with that one big idea. You'll come to a point where you get bleary, punch drunk, just hashing the same ideas over and over. This is the time to take a break, to put the problem aside, to sleep on it and let your unconscious mind take over.
A solution may strike you as you sleep, shower, shave or walk in the park. Even if not, when you return to the problem, you will find you can attack it with renewed vigor and a fresh perspective. I use this technique in writing I put aside what I have written and read it fresh the next day. Many times the things that I thought were brilliant when I wrote them can be much improved at second glance.
Use a checklist
Checklists can be used to stimulate creative thinking and as a starting point for new ideas. Many manufacturers, consultants, technical magazines, and trade associations publish checklists you can use in your own work. But the best checklists are those you create yourself, because they are tailored to the problems that come up in your daily routine.
For example, Jill is a technical salesperson well versed in the technical features of her product, but she has trouble when it comes to closing a sale. She could overcome this weakness by making a checklist of typical customer objections and how to answer them. (The list of objections can be culled from sales calls made over the course of several weeks. Possible tactics for overcoming these objections can be garnered from fellow salespeople, from books on selling, and from her own trial and error efforts.) Then, when faced with a tough customer, she doesn't have to "reinvent the wheel," but will be prepared for all the standard objections because of her familiarity with the checklist.
However, no checklist can contain an idea for every situation that comes up. Remember, a checklist should be used as a tool for creative thinking not as a crutch.
Sherlock Holmes was a brilliant detective. But even he needed to bounce ideas off Dr. Watson at times. As a professional writer, I think I know how to write an engaging piece of copy. But when I show a draft to my wife, she can always spot at least half a dozen ways to make it better.
Some engineers, designers, researchers and business-people prefer to work alone. I'm one of them, and maybe You are, too. But if you don't work as part of a team, getting someone else's opinion of your work can help you focus your thinking and produce ideas you hadn't thought of.
Take the feedback for what it's worth. If you feel you are right, and the criticisms are off base, ignore them. But more often than not, feedback will provide useful information that can help you come up with the best, most profitable ideas.
Of course, if you ask others to "take a look at this report," you should be willing to do the same for them when they solicit your opinion. You'll find that reviewing the work of others is fun; it's easier to critique someone else's work than create your own. And you'll be gratified by the improvements you think of-things that are obvious to you but would never have occurred to the other person.
Some people think more creatively when working in groups. But how large should the group be? My opinion is that two is the ideal team. Any more and you're in danger of ending up with a committee that spins its wheels and accomplishes nothing. The person you team up with should have skills and thought processes that balance and complement your own. For example, in advertising, copywriters (the word people) team up with art directors (the picture people).
In entrepreneurial firms, the idea person who started the company will often hire a professional manager from one of the Fortune 500 companies as the new venture grows; the entrepreneur knows how to make things happen, but the manager knows how to run a profitable, efficient corporation.
As an engineer, you may invent a better microchip. But if you want to make a fortune selling it, you should team up with someone who has a strong sales and marketing background.
Give new ideas a chance
Many business people. especially managerial types, develop their critical faculties more finely than their creative faculties. If creative engineers and inventors had listened to these people, we would not have personal computers, cars, airplanes, light bulbs or electricity.
The creative process works in two stages. The first is the idea producing stage, when ideas flow freely. The second is the critical or "editing" stage, where you hold each idea up to the cold light of day and see if it is practical.
Many of us make the mistake of mixing the stages together. During the idea producing stage, we are too eager to criticize an idea as soon as it is presented. As a result, we shoot down ideas and make snap judgments when we should be encouraging the production of idea". And many good ideas are killed this way.
Kenneth J. McNaughton, Editor
Robert W. Bly is an independent copywriter and consultant specializing in industrial and high-tech advertising, 450 East 81st St., New York, NY 10028; tel. (212) 794-8731. He is the author of eight Books, including “Technical Writing: Structure, Standards, and Style,” McGraw-Hill, 1983. Bly holds a BS in chemical engineering From the University of Rochester and is a member of AIChE.