How to Find a Good Idea

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1 A Graduate School Toolkit volume II How to Find a Good Idea and Do Something With It

2 Introduction Then read on and let us help you: Is your graduation date being delayed because up to now you've been unable to come up with Debunk some of the commonly-held myths about "creative people" a workable idea for your dissertation or thesis? Have you become de-motivated by reading articles where it appears someone has already Better understand the conditions under which most good ideas emerge covered an approach similar to the one you were thinking of? Do you consider yourself Develop a "creative community" to be not particularly creative, and therefore not an "ideas person?" Implement a four-step process for generating good ideas and executing them Engage in more positive self-talk around your creative abilities Discover seven things you can do right now to put you in the mindset and environments that foster new ideas v o l u m e I I A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t I n t r o d u c t i o n 1

3 Myth-ing Out? Success in any endeavor depends not just on taking appropriate action but also fueling that action with the right mind set. Here are some common myths about creativity ones that you may have bought into yourself together with evidence showing that they just don't hold up. Myth #1: Creative individuals are born, not made Psychologists are still arguing about the exact contribution of nature and nurture factors, but the consensus seems to be that both make important contributions to a myriad of human outcomes. Which means that even if you don't believe you were born to be creative (and we'd dispute that, but haven't the time or the space to argue that here!), then applying the tips and techniques contained in this Toolkit, i.e., nurturing your ideageneration capacities, is still going to produce some stunning results. Myth #2: Innovation is the sole purview of the lone creative genius Remember Thomas Edison? The man credited with having more patents and inventions to his name than just about any other, single individual in history? Did you also know that he developed the first research and development (R&D) laboratory? Or that his success was actually attributable to the combined efforts of many, unsung staff members? Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, the Brains Trust of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, think tanks, teams of writers on comedy and other TV shows, not forgetting the aforementioned R&D laboratories...all are representative of groups of individuals coming together with the purpose of creative collaboration. We talk more about how to develop your own creative community in the next section - and why it's important. Myth #3: Intellectual work is not creative work At the end of the 19th century, in a speech to the German Chemical Society, the German organic chemist Kekulé is reputed to have explained how his discovery of the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule came to him when he began day-dreaming about a snake biting its own tail. This is just one of many examples of creative intellectuals, demonstrating that these two mind sets are not mutually exclusive. What you may be confusing this belief with, however, is the methodological inflexibility that some intellectuals believe is sacrosanct. Having pre-conceived notions of what your outcomes have to look like is the antithesis of creativity. Maintain a flexibility of mind to control for such rigidity. Myth #4: Creative work is totally original Ever heard the phrase "Standing on the shoulders of giants," which is attributed to the 18th century British scientist, Sir Isaac Newton? Many of Edison's inventions are said to have been modifications of discoveries by other individuals. The structure of DNA as postulated by Nobel prizewinners Francis Crick and James D. Watson depended largely on the results of previous studies by Wilkins and Franklin. The concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI), popularized by Daniel Goleman, is said to stem from earlier psychologists' foci on social and multiple intelligences. Indeed, EI was apparently first addressed in an unpublished dissertation by Wayne Payne in 1985, and was later elaborated upon by Salovey and Mayer several years before Goleman's book popularized it. Tom Peters puts it this way in his book The Circle of Innovation: "Don't reinvent the wheel. Add your new (hopefully big) twist and quickly blend with tested bits borrowed from anyone and everyone." We rest our case! 2 M y t h - i n g o u t? A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I v o l u m e I I A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t M y t h - i n g o u t? 3

4 Myth #5: Creativity is open and free and cannot thrive in contexts of constraint Well, we beg to differ, as you'll read shortly (and so we won't labor the point here). Let us simply remind you of those infamous words "Houston, we have a problem" and the problem-solving involved when the crew and ground control staff of the Apollo 13 space mission realized they had to change their goal of reaching the moon to one of getting the craft and its contents back to earth safely. Think about the limitations faced by those astronauts contained in little more than a tin can floating out in space, as well as the Houston ground team that had to come up with solutions using only materials that were housed in that tin can. If anything is a prime example of creativity flourishing within the boundary of profound constraints then that story is...and if you need further proof or inspiration, go rent the DVD! Myth #6: Creative work is not practical Hmm. If you believe this you obviously need to be introduced to the activities of companies like IDEO which is paid a bundle of money by organizations looking to them for creative solutions to very practical, everyday problems. Such as coming up with products like computers and televisions that better meet the needs of today's discerning consumer. As the general manager of IDEO, Tom Kelley points out in his book The Ten Faces of Innovation, instead of responding to customers' requests by producing VCRs with a "super-fast rewind," creative teams gave us the DVD player which requires no rewind at all. Isn't that the epitome of practical? The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. Linus Pauling 4 M y t h - i n g o u t? A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I

5 How to Conjure up your Creative Community We used the word "conjure" in the title of this section because when you tap into the collective inspiration of your other "selves" and other people, something magical happens. But let's begin by asking you a few questions. When was the last time you: Discussed your research focus with a member of your family whose education ended with high school? Tried to explain what you're engaged in at school with a five-year old? Went to the magazine section of a mainstream bookstore and challenged yourself to find a connection between your research and some of the latest articles? Played devil's advocate with yourself and tried to come up with ten questions that others might ask but you haven't addressed in your studies to date? Actively sought out members of your cohort who think very differently than you (perhaps being detail oriented rather than a "big picture" person) and invited them to participate in regular, general discussions about your discipline, or a focused study group? We pointed out earlier (Myth # 2) that creativity is not the sole purview of the isolated genius. On the contrary, collaboration is key for the world's most successful creative enterprises. However, the word collaboration implies a partnership of like minds, a coherence of thought and action, a concord or general agreement. And that's not what we are suggesting you look for at all. By actively seeking out different people, different experiences, and hence different ways of looking at the world you will inevitably become open to fresh avenues of inquiry for your research interests. Therefore we prefer the term creative community. In the same way that communities are enriched by the diversity found within them, you need to search within yourself or within your environment for contrasting, divergent, varied, even offbeat or downright weird ways of approaching your topic in order to free your mind of the confines of academic thought. You'll find more approaches for developing your own creative community in the next section on generating ideas, as well as through reading the books referenced in the bibliography section. Sometimes? Infrequently? Never? Then you are missing out on a wealth of new perspectives that could inspire and direct your thinking in ways that otherwise would be overlooked. 6 H o w t o C o n j u r e u p y o u r C r e a t i v e C o m m u n i t y A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I v o l u m e I I A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t H o w t o C o n j u r e u p y o u r C r e a t i v e C o m m u n i t y 7

6 Generating Good Ideas and Executing Them good idea is one that will make a difference and can actually be A done. The essence of generating good ideas involves listening and learning-listening to the situations that matter to you, to the people in those situations, and for the inherent possibilities that are always there. Many processes have been developed for generating good ideas. We've organized the process into four distinct, but interrelated moments. Keep in mind that the process is iterative and recursive-each moment may refer you to back to the moment that precedes it, and you will likely go through the process multiple times. LEARN Learn everything you can about the situation and the people in it-use the following questions to gain insight: Who are the people involved and what motivates them? What are the most salient elements of the situation? How do the different people and elements relate to and influence each other? How is the situation unfolding over time? Why is the situation the way it is? Try to state it one sentence. Identify the causes of that problem or the factors that can be leveraged to take advantage of the opportunity. CREATE Based on what you learned from understanding the situation and the people involved in it? What would it "look" like for that problem to be solved or the opportunity to be fully engaged? What are some possible ways to achieve the ideal situation? Of the ways available, which seems to be the best? DO Translate your best solution into a set of definable goals that can be measured. In other words, how will you know that you are achieving the solution you are working towards? Create a specific plan for achieving those goals: Identify the people you need to help you, either as part of your team or as part of your network, and how you will get them involved. Identify the resources you need, materially and financially, and how you will secure them. Develop a plan for letting people know what you are doing. Develop a timeline with milestones. Given everything you've learned, articulate a major challenge/problem/gap/opportunity that is presenting itself right now. There may be more than one, so you may have to prioritize. Pick one to focus on. Use a prototype to test the plan. By definition, a prototype is not finished. It has enough of the key functions that allows someone to test your product, your process, or idea, etc. 8 G e n e r a t i n g G o o d I d e a s a n d E x e c u t i n g T h e m A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I v o l u m e I I A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t G e n e r a t i n g G o o d I d e a s a n d E x e c u t i n g T h e m 9

7 ADAPT What worked and did not work in the prototype OR in the plan thus far? What needs to be changed or enhanced? What are the best next steps to implement necessary adjustments? APPLIED TO A WRITING PROJECT For a writing project the key is to realize that your writing does not simply express your viewpoints, or report on research that you've done. It actively engages and solves an intellectual problem faced by a group of people who take it seriously enough to read your work and expect you to help them. Creativity requires the courage to let go of uncertainties. Erich Fromm Learn: View the project as an answer to an intellectual problem faced by a community that matters to you. Who faces the problem and why? How have they come to this situation? In a nutshell, what is the problem? Do they need a new method to solve a pressing research problem? Are there already existing methods that need to be applied to new situations or questions? How has the current situation come about and what are the existing research projects that you might be able to build on? Or what are the projects that you will have to build from the ground up? Are there methods or knowledge that you might be able to borrow from other disciplines? Create: Based on what you learn, what is the best way to approach the research project that emerges? If that project was completed, what would you know and what would be the impact of knowing it? What are your best ideas for gaining that knowledge or creating that new method? 10 G e n e r a t i n g G o o d I d e a s a n d E x e c u t i n g T h e m A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I

8 Do: What's your plan for getting the research project done? Who can help you get it done? What material and financial resources do you need to get it done? By when do you need to have it done, and how will you know that you are making appropriate progress? How will you know if your answer or project actually addresses the question(s) at hand? Find opportunities to "prototype" your answer by presenting it to the relevant audiences and asking them where it addresses their needs and where it falls short. This means that you will have to share your work in as many different ways as you can, both in formal presentations and in informal conversations. Even once you publish your work, the prototyping process continues as you receive feedback. Adapt: Based on the feedback you get from prototyping and testing, what adjustments do you need to make? Are there more questions raised by your work that you now need to answer? Did you fail to answer a question and now have to find a different way to answer the question? Does it turn out that your project, whilst executed well, does not actually address a problem that is very important? Has the intellectual conversation simply moved on, and how will you bring your ideas into the next stage of the conversation? THE IMPORTANCE OF "DOING NOTHING" To this end, preserve regular time to do the following: Reflect on your work, both in terms of what's working and what's not. Think forward to next steps with the project you are working on. Think of new questions or possible new projects (either related to the current project or not). Use "thought experiments" to anticipate how your solutions may or may not work, how they might go wrong, what the next steps will be if they work. Expose yourself to new, seemingly disconnected ideas or possibilities. Look for connections or inspirations that follow from these new ideas. Get plenty of rest and relaxation, or engage in physical activity. Of course, we don't literally mean do nothing. The point is to get out of your own way by calming your mind or giving it something simple to do so you can focus. Whatever method of generating ideas you use, it is essential to take time to reflect, think about your work, or just rest. This allows what creativity theorists call the "incubation" phase, that phase in which ideas seem to simply emerge while you are doing something "mindless" (walking the dog, showering, cooking, etc.). 12 G e n e r a t i n g G o o d I d e a s a n d E x e c u t i n g T h e m A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I v o l u m e I I A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t G e n e r a t i n g G o o d I d e a s a n d E x e c u t i n g T h e m 13

9 THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIVE SELF-TALK It's a well-worn story by now, but you may remember that in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced that within ten years the United States would put a man on the moon, this country was well behind the Russians in the space-race. Yet that ambitious statement inspired the collective will and efforts of NASA, prompting a flurry of related activities. The result was the realization of that dream on July 20th 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first human being in history to walk on the moon. What has this got to do with finding an inspired idea for your thesis or dissertation? You can engage in similar, positive self-talk right now. Tell yourself, constantly, that you will find the idea you feel passionate enough about to research and clarify over the next few years. Set a goal for when you will graduate and work backwards. (Note: The University of Minnesota's Dissertation Calculator will help you identify the specific deadlines you need to meet for each discrete task in the process of writing your thesis or dissertation. Access it at: disscalc/). There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it s going to be a butterfly. Buckminster Fuller Announce that deadline to your family and friends. Be sure to talk in terms of what you can and will do, not what you can't. Remember Thomas Edison's famous words when trying to find the right material to be the filament for an electric light bulb? He said he didn't fail 1,000 times, he simply found 1,000 different ways that this particular idea wouldn't work. Similarly, evaluate every potential idea you have and see it as leading you closer to your big idea, not further away. 14 G e n e r a t i n g G o o d I d e a s a n d E x e c u t i n g T h e m A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I

10 Seven Things You Can Do RIGHT NOW To Generate New Ideas ONE: Reflect on what attracted you to your discipline in the first place. When you think back to a time when you weren't in graduate school or had just begun your degree course, what were the questions that you were seeking to have answered? How many of them remain unanswered...and which do you still feel passionate about addressing? TWO: Go talk with your adviser or a faculty member whose research interests are in a similar area (or not!)...tell them what you're interested in and listen to what they have to say about that. Their comments may inspire a connection between otherwise disparate pieces of research that you'd like to investigate further. THREE: Commit to skimming through the latest issue of three to five leading journals in your field. Focus on the articles that capture your attention and look at the discussion section for suggestions for further research. FOUR: Volunteer for as many on- or off-campus presentations and talks as possible - even if you don't believe your ideas are well formed. The process of putting together a presentation and speaking it out loud is a great way to clarify your thinking and promote new directions for you to explore. FIVE: Socialize! Attend Graduate Student Assembly gatherings, come to the Graduate School reception area (MAI 101) and hang out or do some reading on our comfortable couches, join a club. Look for opportunities to have informal chats with graduate students outside of your field, where you can talk briefly about your research interests, ask about theirs, and look for connections that might be mutually beneficial. SIX: Register for courses offered by another department next semester. You can gain invaluable knowledge about ethics, consulting, writing, teaching, communication and many other topics, while meeting students from other disciplines. Listen to how they respond to your explanation of your research... misunderstandings or even active dismissal or negation of your ideas is a great way to explore other ways of approaching your topic. Don t take criticism to heart-take it to mind. At the very least, take it seriously. SEVEN: Take a break. Creativity isn't about forcing yourself to do something, it's about being receptive. Instead of chaining ourselves to the computer when we each want to write something that isn't freely emerging, we might take our respective dogs for a walk, go for a run, sort out the washing, clean the bathroom, cook - anything that allows us to take a break from all that "left-brained" thinking. In the same way that inspirational thoughts often come into people's heads just before they're about to go to sleep at night, or first thing in the morning, calming your brain activity by doing something "mindless" can help you access fresh perspectives and new ideas. Bibliography AHA! 10 ways to free your creative spirit and find your great ideas, by Jordan Ayan, Three Rivers Press, Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, HarperPerennial, The Ten Faces of Innovation, by Tom Kelley (with Jonathan Littman), Doubleday, The Creativity Book: A year's worth of inspiration and guidance, by Eric Maisel, PhD, Tatcher/Putnam, Inspirability: 40 top designers speak out about what inspires, by Pash, How Design Books, The Circle of Innovation, by Tom Peters, Alfred A. Knopf, The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life, by Twyla Tharp, Simon & Schuster, Fast Company's Greatest Hits: Ten years of the most innovative ideas in business, edited by Mark N. Vamos and David Lidsky, Portfolio, S e v e n T h i n g s Yo u C a n D o R I G H T N O W... A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t v o l u m e I I v o l u m e I I A G r a d u a t e S c h o o l To o l k i t S e v e n T h i n g s Yo u C a n D o R I G H T N O W... 17

11 This booklet was written by: Dr. Tommy Darwin and Elizabeth Alexander This is a publication of the Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin. The information herein is subject to change. ver. 06/2010

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