How Big Ideas Are Built

Companies often ask themselves why their innovation efforts seem to produce so few truly game-changing ideas. Why are they mostly getting only lukewarm suggestions for incremental improvements rather than radical new concepts for revolutionizing their industries? How can an organization get dramatically better at generating big, breakthrough ideas?

To answer these questions, we first have to understand how big ideas are actually built. For a start, most people don’t even associate the notion of a building process with idea generation. Indeed, many senior executives still believe that ideas simply come to us out of nowhere in a sudden flash of inspiration. So the essential first step is to clarify how the creative process works. What is missing in most large companies is a theory of innovation that translates into a practical methodology for producing big ideas.

For well over a hundred years, academics from fields such as psychology, anthropology and neuroscience, as well as creative practitioners from the world of advertising, along with notable management scholars, have been studying how the human mind produces breakthroughs. Indeed, there is a substantial body of work on creativity that is readily available to business people. But the reality is that few corporate leaders and managers have given it much attention, preferring instead to focus on improving operational efficiency inside their organizations while hoping that – by some lucky accident – one of their people will have a Eureka moment while walking the dog.

What we now know quite conclusively is that creative ideas don’t just occur to us spontaneously from one moment to the next, although that might often appear to be the case. Our minds actually build them from a unique chain of associations and connections, sometimes over a considerable period of time. When we examine the creative process in more detail, we discover that breakthrough thinking is usually built on an illuminating insight (or a series of insights) into a situation or a problem that inspires an unexpected leap (or leaps) of association in the mind, resulting in a completely novel configuration of previously existing ideas. This fresh combination of thoughts, in which various, perhaps unrelated concepts and domains click together in a whole new relationship, is what suddenly manifests itself as a big idea or creative solution. That’s the famous Eureka moment when a light bulb seems to switch on in our heads.



Rowan Gibson: Global business strategist, bestselling author and expert on radical innovation

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