Where do ideas come from? Can anyone become creative? Can ideation be taught?

One of the earliest books to have presented a way of generating ideas was by an adman. Alex Osborn was the manager of the ad agency BDO, and later played a vital role in the creation of the ad agency that is today called BBDO.

He wrote the book ‘Applied Imagination – Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving’. He is credited to have invented the process we call ‘brainstorming’.

He spent the latter part of his life training and teaching creative thinking. It was gratifying to note that Alex Osborn and his book, originally published in 1953, getting quoted in the book ‘Ideaflow’, published in 2022.

Unlike Alex Osborn, the authors of this book Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn are not from the world of advertising. But like Osborn, they too teach creative thinking at Stanford d.school. And the book draws heavily on their many decades of experience in teaching entrepreneurs and executives.

The book’s premise is that in order to survive in today’s world every organisation has to be ‘creative’. By creative, the authors mean every organisation has to be able to generate and execute ideas at a rapid pace.

Taking several principles embedded in the concept of design thinking (a quick guide to design thinking is the book ‘Art of Innovation’ by Tom Kelly, Co-founder of IDEO), the book presents the importance of having a rapid ‘flow’ of ideas.

The authors explain that most traditional organisations are wired to kill ideas or enmesh them in complicated approval processes. Instead, companies need to develop the ability to generate more ideas, good, bad, and ugly ones.

Idea flow = ideas/time

Low idea flow indicates a quiet conference room, a bored audience, and two pale ideas written with a dried-out whiteboard marker. High idea flow is effortless, joyful, high energy, and an outpouring of surprising possibilities. If organisations can suspend judgment and allow multiple ideas to flow, they will succeed in the long run.

The authors even recommend a simple exercise for each of us to improve our own idea flow. Pick a mail that you have to answer soon. On a notepad, write ten optional subject lines. Quickly. No judgment. Go as wild as you want. Then look at the ten lines. Chances are you will find something that you had not thought possible.

When you are in the high idea flow zone, you will go from quality to quantity, precious to scrappy, perfection to practice, isolation to collaboration, and so on.

The authors suggest a simple three ‘S’ process: Seed – select a problem and study it; Sleep – let the unconscious mind process the problem; Solve – flood the problem with ideas. They then explain how the three steps work.

The book presents real-life examples drawn from companies like Patagonia, GE, SVP, and Bridgestone among others.

Part one of the book is about improving idea flow. How each of us can generate more ideas? Simple tips like the importance of taking notes; even keeping a pen and pad at the bedside table. How to test ideas. Should you wait for the product with all the bells and whistles, or should you test out scrappy ideas (something that is called rapid prototyping in design thinking language)? Should you open up your ideation process to the world, or should you collaborate and work even with your competitors?

Part two of the book is about elevating the quality of ideas. This section is replete with tips on how you can change and mine for new perspectives.

Taking a walk around the block may actually help in the ideation process more than staring at the whiteboard. Or changing your perspectives. As a hotel should you only look at other hotels or should you look at a fashion retailer or an amusement park? Get curious about everything around you. And try to untangle the creative knots.

The book is also full of quotable quotes and anecdotes involving legendary innovators like Thomas Alva Edison, Richard Feynman, and Thomas Kelly. The book also contains numerous examples of how companies tapped the idea flow and how they missed spotting an opportunity simply because they were stuck in their own rabbit holes or perspectives.

All these put together makes the book an engaging read for anyone who is interested in improving the idea flow in their organisation. And better idea flow will make for a winner organisation.

(Ambi Parameswaran is a bestselling author and ad industry veteran. His latest book ‘All the World’s a Stage’ is a personal branding story)

Check out the book on Amazon.

‘Ideaflow: Why Creative Businesses Win’ by Jeremy Utley & Perry Klebahn
Publisher: Ebury Edge
Price: ₹799
Pages: 304