A Technique For Producing Ideas


The best book I’ve ever come across on coming up with ideas is a very short one called “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by James Webb Young published in the 1940s. The summary of which is:

“An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements”

“The ability to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships”

His 5 step technique is:

1. Gather raw material – specific to your area/domain and general. The latter means becoming a “browser in all sorts of fields of information”. An idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people and general knowledge about life and events. Keep notes and scrapbooks of your knowledge that you gather

2. Actively ponder over the material – “Feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind”. “Facts sometimes yield up their meaning quicker when you do not scan them too directly”. Little ideas come up – note them down. You will get tired, but carry on – “the mind, too, has a second wind”. After a while you reach a hopeless stage “with no clear insight anywhere”.

3. Put the problem out of your mind. Turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions: “listen to music, go to the theatre or movies, read poetry or a detective story”.

4. Out of nowhere the Idea will appear. “It will come when you are least expecting it – while shaving, or bathing or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night”

5. Take your idea out into the world of reality. “When you do this you usually find that it is not quite the marvellous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it”. “It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost”. “Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your cheat at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious”. “When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it you have overlooked will come to light”.