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Tuesday, 01 December 2015

Where do good research ideas come from?

Author Steven Johnson doesn’t believe in lone geniuses or Eureka moments. Great ideas, he says, more often emerge from networks, and need to be nurtured gradually. Claire McAlpine of MediaCom considers how researchers can put this into practice.

Great research is about rigour, skill and passion. It’s also about creativity and brilliant ideas. But is brilliance the exclusive preserve of those at the far right of the IQ bell curve and the eccentric artist in the isolated cabin? Or are outstanding ideas within the grasp of us all?

Steven Johnson sets out to tackle these questions in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. Reassuringly he believes that the opportunity to generate really good ideas is available to many, not just a few. In fact ‘many’ is a key part of innovation: many minds, many slow hunches and many collisions of ideas. Gutenberg’s printing press was a classic collision of many ideas – the moveable type, the ink, the paper and even the press (a mechanism he originally encountered as a wine screw press in the Rhineland) combined with Gutenberg’s knowledge of metallurgy to create the revolutionary tool of mass communication.

I caught one of Johnson’s talks during the British leg of his book tour. What I took away is that, while we may not all have good ideas tumbling from our minds every day, we can create environments and working practices that facilitate the idea process. It got me thinking about the types of environments that would foster great research ideas and how we could embed this in our work. Here are five useful principles that can be applied to research.

1. Be patient

Johnson stresses that good ideas don’t come from ‘Eureka’ moments but as the result of slow hunches: an interesting thought, a gut feeling, a small seed that is grown and nurtured into a good idea. The time this takes can vary from days to years. The important thing about a hunch is that it is not a fully formed idea, and may even turn out to lead nowhere in the short term. But by keeping that hunch consciously accessible rather than ignoring or forgetting it, and by colliding old hunches with new ones, a really great idea may emerge.

From a research perspective making notes of these hunches is key – do you always record your early thoughts or trust that you’ll remember them when it comes to the analysis stage? And do you revisit these hunches throughout the analytical process to stop them from stagnating? The reality of research means that slow and in-depth analysis can feel like a luxury. But hunches can grow and develop across projects, clients and sectors, and each chance to revisit them could take the idea a little further.

2. Collect hunches ready to be stitched together later

How you record your hunches is an important part of the process of ‘incubation’ and ‘collision’. I’ve found a combination of dedicated notebooks and blogging to be useful. My notebook is not a collection of meeting minutes and scrawled interview notes, but a place to record the unconnected sparks and interesting ideas I come across. It is now full of other people’s thoughts that I’ve collected from conferences, books and of course research projects.

Blogging is another fun way of recording the thoughts that you stumble across. My blog is now a visual diary of interesting case studies, media innovations, and insight nuggets I’ve read, and I love looking back and finding thoughts that I had forgotten about. Recommendation tools like Stumbleupon are another great way to bookmark interesting thoughts and find other people’s favourite items on the web.

An interesting tip that Johnson gives about collecting hunches is to avoid categorising them. The act of organisation can limit and channel thoughts too early in the idea generation process, while allowing them to mingle can facilitate their free connection. This has some quite interesting implications for qualitative analysis frameworks – where does the balance lie between free connection and thematic identification?

3. Connect your hunches with the hunches of others

Good ideas rarely come from solitary pursuits. An analysis session or brainstorm is a great place to share hunches, but how often is this saved until the later stages of the research process rather than developed throughout?

We’ve just completed a piece of analysis for a homeware client, the success of which I believe was down to the collaborative process. We wanted a way that the entire research team could share and develop hunches from day one and we decided that the group blogging service Posterous would be great for this – it’s free and easy to use. Throughout the project the research team shared their hunches and uploaded images and related articles. We were able to help develop one another’s hunches and feed in new thoughts as the research progressed.

The approach allowed us to become cultural trendspotters, which was particularly fitting for this project. As we shared our discoveries, they inspired even more avenues for exploration and we ended up with over 70 blog posts and many more comments, creating a wealth of stimuli for our client and a strong foundation for identifying the key cultural trends in their category. It created better ideas that had been nurtured in many minds throughout the project, and sped up the analysis stage at the end.

4. Good ideas come from not just many but many diverse minds

Bringing many minds together is important, but also crucial is the diversity of those minds – speaking to people with different perspectives. Johnson recommends freely publishing your ideas for all to use in a ‘creative commons’ approach, but at present this is at the edge of most people’s comfort zones (not to mention the client confidentiality issues0.

However, there is enormous advantage in involving broader stakeholders in the idea generation process. As a research team embedded in a media agency, this is where my team is fortunate. A few steps across the room and we are at the desks of our clients’ media planners, strategists and econometricians. We have close relationships with their creative agencies and sometimes we can bring in media owner perspectives too.

This kind of diversity worked nicely when we used a blogging platform in our analysis. It turned out that the core four-person research team was only the start of it – our team extended to include people in our department who wanted to help develop our ideas, and went even further to include the planners, strategists and even our client.

Diversity of interests is another key way of colliding ideas, and is how I, as a researcher, can justify reading books about typography and design at work. “Have a lot of hobbies,” Johnson advises. Diverse interests, he believes, were key to the success of Charles Darwin in developing his theory of evolution; and John Snow, the 19th century doctor who worked out that cholera was carried in the water, not the air. Even the technology that became the worldwide web began as a hobby of its creator, Tim Berners-Lee.

This is how I, as a researcher, can justify reading books about typography and design at work.

5. Make space for hunches to incubate

Finally, good ideas come when you aren’t forcing them. I remember hearing somewhere about the three ‘B’s being great hubs of creative ideas: in the bath, on the bus and in bed. While research projects don’t always leave space for relaxed timelines it’s important to create some space for your mind to wander – even half a day for the hunches to incubate. Maybe go for a walk, or even just get away from the desk and sit somewhere else for a bit.

If you have thoughts to add about nurturing great research ideas, please share them. After all, that’s how the best ones emerge.


Cover image: Where good ideas come from

Claire McAlpine is a qualitative researcher at Real World Insight, the research division of media agency MediaCom. She blogs about insight, strategy and behaviour change here.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson is published by Allen Lane, priced at £20




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Readers' comments (14)

  • I am reading this book at the moment. It's one of the most interesting and entertaining books I've read in a while. It's at once incredibly useful from the point of view of - this is how you can position yourself to have better ideas yourself, and really fun to read as it gives you a concise overview of some of the big ideas from throughout history. The things you can never be bothered to read up on but know you probably should like the invention of the printing press, GPS etc.

    I think the most poignant for me is the idea that you should have a diverse knowledge set to encourage good ideas. Thinking back on the ideas I have had in my life so far, they have never been exclusive to one field. This is a point highlighted in James Webb Young's "A Technique for Producing Ideas." Which should be read too and will only take about 30 mins out of your day and ~£2 out of your wallet.

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  • Great article, Claire. I agree with your thoughts here - I believe it's important to trust your hunches, to consider them and try them out. Research is a team game and we need to make time to generate ideas together.

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  • Really enjoyed that video and thanks for sharing this article, interesting food for thought

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  • Wonderful thoughts here Claire. Love the idea of creating an environment conditioned towards creative thinking. Will definitely be putting this into practise at the office!

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  • I have heard it said that we learn to juggle in our sleep (between frequent sessions of practice). I think there is a lot to be said for the importance of time and space for incubation - there is often a kind of magic at play in the creative process that can only do its work when left quite alone.

    Borrowing much from the many great ideas of Indian thinkers and spiritual masters, Deepak Chopra acknowledges this mystery and magic in "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success", in which he describes a 'field of pure potentiality' - a profoundly creative space within, which is free of the every-day noise and drama that can so easily stifle inspiration and is freely accessible to all (not only those bell curve extremes and eccentric artists as indeed you say Claire). Chopra recommends a daily retreat into this space via silence and contemplative practice. It is through regular contact with the infinite creative potential within us - in space and silence - that we have the presence of mind to notice a hunch worth collecting, to spot the glimmering thread between diverse perspectives.

    So, to anyone pushed for time and space, who wants or needs to speed up the incubation process, I highly recommend a daily dose of meditation - or yoga - or even, dare I say, prayer. There is something 'going on' in such activity that clears away the mental and emotional junk that all too often prevents us from seeing the ‘bigger picture’, trusting our instincts and letting go of outcomes… It seems to me that great ideas do not happen because we will them to, it is because they were meant to be born. They are gifts – like the gift of life (one of the most profound expressions of creative force there is).

    This article beautifully explains the skills, disciplines and attitudes required of anyone ready and willing to commit to the creative process - and gives us all a taste of what a great adventure it can be. Thank you.

    RE: the importance of collaboration - I only wish the likes of some university departments and their directors shared such enlightened vision.

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  • Great article and interesting read. So good to read a piece about work in pratice that we can all take something away from. Particually like the section on collecting hunches so be pieced together later. I also feel that something we are a little to quick to try and piece together a story rather than let the connections fuse themselves.

    Well Done
    Sinead Laver

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  • Great article, very interesting read... thanks for sharing :o)

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  • A great read. Thank you for this well-considered piece.

    I'm one of those thinkers for whom good ideas eventually emerge after a lot of stimulus and gestation time, but I find there are ways to trigger new ideas through exercises in divergent thinking.

    I've written a blog post on the topic that may be useful for anyone with 'researcher's block' right here:

    All thoughts greatly appreciated!

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  • Good stuff - very interesting and enlightening. Seems so obvious that good ideas are often generated through thinking / contemplating / hunches / plodding / past experience / collaboration - thanks for sharing Claire!


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  • Hi Claire, this is a highly useful reflection on the book you've read. As a songwriter, ideas come to me all the time and i'm useless at doing things with them. I forget a lot, i record some and then don't go back to them etc, so this is really helpful in the way that i have some ideas on how to organise my ideas! x

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