The Ten Habits of Great Ideators

The Ten Habits of Great Ideators

Consider this article your first history lesson in ideation. To help you get started, we’ve tracked down some of the best thinkers and most creative companies of all time.

Ideation can be a pain, as it’s often a highly ambiguous process with few boundaries and guidelines. As we all know, it’s no easy task to go from, “we need a bunch of great new ideas” to, “here’s a list of great concepts that fit our needs.” So, to help you get started, we’ve created a list of ten prompts to guide your thinking.

1. Start With A Need

Benjamin Franklin
Franklin’s prolific inventiveness was driven largely by his continuous curiosity about “opportunities for improvement.” “[I am] rather ashamed to have it known that I have spent any part of my time in an employment that cannot possibly of use to myself or others.”

Johnson & Johnson
Responding to a complaint about skin irritation caused by one of the company’s medical plasters, Fred Kilmer, J&J’s director of research, sent a physician a packet of Italian talc to apply to patients’ skin when using the plaster. He then convinced the company to include a similar packet in every order of the plaster. Soon,J&J began receiving orders specifically for the talc, and Johnson’s Baby Powder was born.

2. Create A Supportive Environment

Yoshiro Nakamats
The iconoclastic designer created an extremely personalized and sophisticated environment to stimulate and nurture his creativity, including sensory deprivation tanks and special stereo goggles that project patterns intended to put him into his creative sweet spot.

One of 3M’s crazy-like-a-fox traits is its famous “15% rule” that tells researchers to spend that much of their time working on something other than their primary project.

3. Gather Different Voices

Virginia Woolf
She and her siblings gathered together intellectuals of all stripes, including Clive Bell, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and E.M. Forster. They called themselves the Bloomsbury Group, and together they discussed topics ranging from economics to the nature of consciousness to politics and gender equality.

The Boeing 777 is unique in that it was developed in collaboration with diverse disciplines. Boeing invited suppliers, representatives of airline customers, and others to work concurrently on the aircraft’s structural and systems designs. This lead to easily configurable interior designs, more customizable options, and maintenance features such as easy-open hatches.

4. Feed Your Head

Charles Darwin
“It appears to me that nothing can be more improving… than a journey in distant countries…” The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulated Darwin to increased activity. For him, travel involved seeing diverse data and making connections. He recognized that breadth without depth was not sufficient when feeding the appetite of a giant intellect.

In addition to a well-stocked library and a Visiting Lecture Series, Hallmark sends its creative staff on in-house sabbaticals after completing major projects. This structured program encourages designers and artist to recharge and to seek new sources of inspiration. These intensive head-feeding departures from the routine have stimulated new Hallmark insights, new offerings, and a deeper understanding of customers.

5. Ask Stupid Questions

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein had a knack for asking very good questions that were deceptively simple and childlike. For example, his question, “What would it be like to ride a beam of light?” led to his Theory of Relativity. Einstein’s vivid inquiries (and brilliant logic) to understand the fundamental nature of time and space shook the world.

The Swatch team revolutionized the watch industry by questioning the fundamental assumptions held by watchmakers. Nicolas Hayek, co-founder of Swatch, explains that “the people on the original Swatch team asked a crazy question: Why can’t we design a striking, low-cost, high-quality watch and build it in Switzerland? The bankers were skeptical. A few suppliers refused to sell us parts. They said we would ruin the industry with this crazy product.”

6. Encourage Wild Ideas

Walt Disney
Walt Disney pushed his creative staff to create over-the-top designs for Disneyworld installations and movie plots. He continually challenged his team to come up with new ideas, to amuse and amaze him. Disney’s own excitement and enthusiasm for a good, fun, “madhouse” ideation session rubbed off on his minions. We still see his legacy today in the sustained imaginative output of the Disney empire.

Sony’s commitment to encouraging wild ideas have lead them to both tiny insights and bold, sweeping explorations. Faced with CEO Akio Morita’s challenge to make a tape player that was little larger than the actual tape, engineers decided it was fair game to throw out the speaker, the largest component in the system. It was replaced with headphones, and the Walkman was born.

7. Keep An Idea Log

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are the manifestations of an extraordinarily creative, inquisitive mind. His explorations of natural and mechanical phenomenon covered many years and topics, as did his sketch-studies of anatomy and composition. While each entry may not have seemed significant at the time of entry, we see in the published version that he developed major works and thorough observations from these elements.

Founder and CEO Richard Branson carries a black A4 notebook everywhere he goes. He uses it to record everything from names and phone numbers to ideas, conversations, and to-do lists. This habit has made such an impression on his staff that other senior executives have adopted the practice as well.

8. Quantity Yields Quality

Pablo Picasso
Picasso said, “I do a hundred studies in a few days, whereas another painter might spend a hundred days on a single painting. By carrying on, I will open windows. I will go behind the canvas, and perhaps something will be brought out.”

Hewlett-Packard realized that while development projects that go to completion are quite expensive, the investment required to start a new project is relatively low. In response, HP seeks to start as many projects as they can, and either fix problems as early as possible or quickly kill off those projects that seem likely to run into trouble. This is in marked contrast to firms that labor to find and fund a small number of “right” projects.

9. Use The Buddy System

John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Lennon said, “We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I remember when we got the chord that made the song… In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that — both playing into each other’s noses.”

Nissan Design
Jerry Hirshberg, President of Nissan Design International, tapped into his organization’s creativity by holding intensely social design sessions. He gathered designers together for a week, and had them work side by side. He says, “it was bedlam, but great fun, like an idea picnic with everyone nibbling from one another’s desks…Exposure to their colleagues’ work stimulated the making of sharp distinctions at least as much as it did the forging of connections with it.”

10. Make Bad Ideas Better

Thomas Alva Edison
Edison knew that running current through a filament would get it to radiate light. They tried over 100 different filaments before settling on tungsten in an airless bulb. “All I have done is to perfect what has been attempted before, but did not succeed.”

Palm Computing
Palm’s first product, the Zoomer, was an abject failure. Yet Zoomer’s failure provided the critical insight that formed the basis for the organization’s future success. Palm surveyed the Zoomer’s customers and found that people weren’t asking for a PDA that was smart enough to compete with a computer. They wanted a PDA that was simple enough to compete with paper. Their next attempt, the Palm Pilot, was a runaway success.

Dev Patnaik


Dev Patnaik is the CEO of Jump Associates, the leading independent strategy and innovation firm. He’s a board member of Conscious Capitalism. Dev has been a trusted advisor to CEOs at some of the world’s most admired companies, including Starbucks, Target, Nike, Universal and Virgin.