Spinning off Ideas

We all get ideas. We can’t help it. But most of the time, we can’t use them. We are usually too busy doing something to write them down. And even if we do jot down our brilliant thought, it usually looks a lot less brilliant after a few hours. We lose track of the inspiration. Too bad for us. But what if we could increase the odds that ideas we get automatically turn into useful stuff? Stuff that adds value for us and for others? That would be pretty cool for us — we might even make some money with this new capacity. And it would be pretty cool for the world. Instead of dividing people into categories of who is employed and unemployed, we would all be employed in the ideation process. Ideation = generating and implementing new thoughts. It is the way we use our innate creativity.

So how do we do it? I am thinking a lot about this and it is a reason why I blog. My blogging is an experiment where I try to build capacity to keep track of my ideation. What have I learned? Stage one is making this a routine, and I have found that this is not that hard. You just need to put it in your routine, like doing the laundry, cutting the grass, washing the dishes, etc. BTW, if this sharing your ideas — especially new ideas — scares you, you don’t need to make your blog public. You can keep it private if that is what you need to get going. The trick is to get going! Stage two is to start figuring out which ideas that you write out are worth pursuing and which are not. As Steve Johnson, et al, have said we only generate “half an idea”. Before it becomes useful, we need to find the other half. This is harder.

Some bloggers have used “community building” to make this work (Fred Wilson; for example).  Fred has proven that you can build an online or digital community as a solo actor, if you are already a super-star (like he is in the VC world). Then people in your ecology readily incorporate reading your blog into their routines and they offer add on ideas via comments.  Fred asks for comments about specific issues and he uses them to advance his thinking. But sadly, becoming a super-star like Fred is beyond the reach for most of us. We need a plan b.

A second approach is to build what I call “internal communities”. I use the word communities, which implies other people, but in fact the only person in these communities is you. The communities form around the different things that you find important. So if I blog about my garden, I should ask and answer the question why this got my attention. In case of the garden, perhaps it is the relentless pursuit of the “good life”.

Here is an example of how it works for me. I teach negotiation and so negotiation themes are important to me. I blog about what I see and think about what I blog. My “internal community” consists of ideation to make my negotiation teaching more effective. I believe that I can, but I need ideas to make it happen, so in my “internal community”, the door is always open to new ideas about that. This solely internal decision creates an agenda for my “internal community” to become more creative in figuring this out.

As I watched myself teach and how I talked about negotiation, I found that the most difficult topic is getting people to think more strategically. An internal community voice asked – how could I address this topic better? How could I condense my lifetime experience in the field into a model that I can transfer and other people use? Using Feynman’s ideation method, I had some instinctive guesses why there were problems. I needed to test those guesses against real world expertise and experience. So I started looking around for resources. I noticed that there are not many great books or other guides for this. In other words, no “experts” that I can plug into my thinking. Interesting. And the start of an adventure!

So I thought I could add value just by breaking the topic down into more manageable components. This is a step up from just blogging and blogging and blogging until I dropped. I started building up a thread of ideas, which helped me find the “other half” of my original thought – that strategic thinking is for some mysterious reason difficult for most people. Then I did bump into some models that helped me see more clearly how to talk about certain components of my own model. I blogged about them and started playing with them in my own mind to make them “fit better”. And of course, I tested them against my ongoing experiences. At this stage, my original idea is starting to evolve into a package of ideas that might be plugged into the activities of people around me. I am not really adding value yet, but I am getting a lot closer to it.

Can we go further? Sure. Once you have a thread of ideas targeting an internal community, you can start thinking who would be most interested in that thread and how can you connect with them? So with my strategy thinking, it struck me that young people need this framework more than anyone. So I did a thread targeting what I think they need to know using my model. Now I am one step closer to connecting to that target group. That is fun. Can I make that connection? Who knows? But I am much further down the road in my own ideation process, and that alone is a victory.

One more practical note on blogging – To make that specific connection (in this case to students), I need a new and more clean framework that is intuitive for them to use for their own purposes. This meant creating a new platform that is specifically targeted to fulfilling my initial intention for what students do – learn. And WordPress allows you to create blog platforms for free very easily. It is a perfect ideation tool. And that is what I did this morning – create a new platform, moving over some content from here to develop further in order to open connections with my target group.

So far, this works for me. What about you?

BTW, Joan Didion once said that the only difference between writers and everyone else is that writers carry around a notebook and use it. I think she was on the right track.

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