It’s a tiny book. You can probably devour it over lunch. Millions have done so in order to benefit from its legendary counsel by the no less legendary James Webb Young (1886-1973) whose classic little book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, shows us how to methodically create new ideas.
Young wrote the book from his extensive experience as an adman. He started as a copywriter at JWT in 1912, worked his way up to vice president in 1928, and presented the contents of the book to graduate students at the University of Chicago’s Business School, where he taught from 1931 to 1939. The aim is simple: to inspire people to produce ideas in a logical, orderly way.
And he does so with remarkable clarity and lucidity. His simple five-step methodology touches on a number of points corroborated by recent thinking on creativity. In fact, it is a credit to Young that masterminds like Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein wrote similarly on the premise that ideas are nothing more, or less, than a new combination of old elements. By virtue of being a ‘technique’, Young marries the intuitive with the practical encouraging systems over mysticism, process over talent, the combinatorial nature of ideation, its demand for incubation or unconscious processing, before it reveals itself to its originators.
He writes, “The production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.”
By highlighting how to first train the mind by using principles and methods (in that order), Young builds upon the work of Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (of 80/20 fame), by illustrating how the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. While each fact, on the surface, appears to be a unique piece of knowledge, it is more important to see it as a link in a chain of knowledge. So, as a general law, wherever relationships and similarities are found, ideas abound. And to induce these ideas into existence, he recommends his five-step system:
1 Gathering raw material: Inspiration doesn’t strike dry minds. So the first step is to build a rich pool of ‘raw material’ – mental resources that will inform your vision. While these may be basic agency brief specs, the idea is to draw on as much general knowledge as possible to locate new relationships and combinations.
2 Digesting material: The second step involves digesting the raw material like a curious octopus: “(T)ake the different bits of material... and feel them all over with the tentacles of the mind. (T)ake one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights... (Y)ou are seeking (a) relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jigsaw puzzle.”
3 Unconscious processing: In his third step, Young stresses the importance of letting go, of making “no effort of a direct nature.” So, he suggests, “turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.” Alternatively, go to the movies, listen to music, surf the web, or escape into a novel.
4 Eureka! Step four is the a-ha! moment. But it occurs only if the preceding steps are followed: “Out of nowhere the idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it – while shaving, or bathing, or when you are half awake in the morning. It may awaken you in the middle of the night.”
5 Meeting reality: This final step is a reality check where the newborn idea must be tested, refined and edited under the harsh glare of reality. But take heart, Young advises. “Submit (your idea) to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, you will find that a good idea has... self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.”
Great ideas are hard to reach. Fortunately, Young reminds us, we don’t need a rocket to reach for the stars. Just an imagination and five simple steps to glory.