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Where do ideas really come from?

24 November, 2010

Have you ever wondered where ideas arise? Ideas are the foundation for success. Without ideas you will struggle to succeed! In this blog post I will look at how ideas emerge and how we can benefit from the knowledge of where ideas come from!

Where do ideas really come from?

In a  Swedish radio program during the summer of 2010,  (MP3, after approx. 38 minutes in Swedish) one of Sweden’s most famous inventors, Håkan Lans, mentions a study discussed in the academic journal IVA aktuellt (number 3, 2009, unfortunately not available online …). German researchers asked a large number of people the question: Where do ideas really arise?

Here are the academic research results:

1. In nature (28%)

When you walk in nature in complete harmony. When you’re free to think and let your thoughts fly away. This is when most ideas occur. In fact approx. 28% of ideas occur when you are out in nature. If you want to come up with more ideas, why not spend more time outdoors?

2. Home at meals, while watching TV or doing a hobby (14%)

Perhaps it is so that when you are sitting completely relaxed and enjoying a good meal that is when ideas emerge.  Maybe you should take your time while you’re eating and focus on letting ideas flow? 14% of ideas occur at home during  meals!

3. Holiday / leisure time (13%)

When you get away from the stress of everyday life, your mind flies in all directions. You get new inspiration and 13% of ideas occur. Maybe “creative” companies that want to succeed, should give employees more time off? Maybe we should explore how to give people a “holiday feeling” at work?

4. Business Travel or to/from work (11%)

When you are on business travel or commuting to/from work, there’s usually alot of leftover time. You’re waiting for something, you have time to spare. You’re at work, but not at the office. This is when 11% of ideas occur.

5. In boring meetings (10%)

When you sit in long and boring meetings, your thoughts start wandering. In these situations, 10% of ideas occur. Perhaps you should attend more(!) boring meetings while at work? If you’re forced to come up with ideas and still be at work, chances are that you actually should go to more boring meetings. If this is the case, I apologize for my previous tips about effective meetings!

6. At a club, association or during sports activities (9%)

When doing sports or spending time in association meetings or in social groups, ideas start bubbling up to the surface.

7. In interesting meetings (6%)

In interesting meetings you have no time to think about other things. Only 6% of the ideas in interesting meetings.

8. At work (4%)

Only 4% of ideas occurs at work. This is a thoughtful eye-opener for companies that focus on innovation and creativity. Maybe these companies should encourage employees to spend more time in nature? Maybe companies should make  employees work outdoors? Or is there a contradiction? Perhaps you should say goodbye to the office (thanks Seth Godin)?

9. Using “creative techniques” (Brainstorming, etc)(1%)

Have you ever been in a brainstorming meeting where the goal is to come up with new ideas? I’ve been to alot(alot of good ones too..). When research suggests that only 1% of the ideas come through the use of “creativity techniques”, perhaps you should try something else when you want to come up with ideas?

Ideas do not arise at work!

According to academic research, 76% of ideas occur  outside the workplace! This  should be interesting to all companies- especially companies that depend on creativity and ideas to succeed!

The research suggests that ideas arise when people have time to spare! Ideas just exist! It’s a bit like walking casually on the beach kicking rocks in the sand . Suddenly an idea appears behind one of the rocks. You can’t control it, you just have to be there.

If most ideas emerge outside the workplace, should companies give employees more time off? Or maybe you should introduce  arrangements to give staff time to spare while at work? What does this mean for intellectual property?

It is difficult to create an atmosphere where ideas emerge. 3M has for many years been known for its innovation culture. Google has their 20% time, Atlassian succeeds with their FEDEX days. But is it really possible to plan for people to come up with ideas?
Norway and Sweden are high on the ranking of countries who are good at coming up with ideas. Is it because we have a lot of nice scenery and lots of holiday?

I think the recipe to idea generation can be the following:

  • Approach situations where ideas are likely to arise (see this blog post and evaluate the most beautiful voyage in the world)
  • Acquire extreme knowledge on different topics (it will make it easier to evaluate ideas)
  • Share your knowledge (it actually works!)
  • Ask questions that start with: “What if we ….”
  • Approach intersections in life and at work (look at other industries and other cultures)
  • Don’t focus on the money (see study on the success of Ted)
  • Implement like hell (an idea is not worth much if you don’t implement it. In fact, almost every successful company in recent years are based on an unoriginal idea that has been executed perfectly.)


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