Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

Published on
June 5, 2017
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When it comes to thinking and talking about breakthrough ideas, we have two opposing narratives: “Anyone could have done it” and, paradoxically, “Only they could have done it”. Good ideas are often either dismissed as obvious or, as author Charles Leadbeater says, destined only to be had by “special people in special places”—often at elite institutions and start-up incubators facilitated by PhDs, whiteboards, angel investors, or a stash of colored sticky notes. These opposing narratives we cling to subconsciously influence our ability to be objective about the potential or impact our own ideas might have. We have gotten into the habit of applauding, deconstructing and trying to emulate the genius of others, while simultaneously underestimating our own.

We believe in superstars and visionaries, in the power of Eureka! moments and special circumstances that set great ideas and their creators apart. Thousands of column inches are devoted to the extraordinary genius of entrepreneurs like Sara Blakely, Richard Branson, John Lasseter, Elon Musk, James Dyson, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs, and Arianna Huffington. Those who see and act on what others miss—the entrepreneurial pioneers who recognize opportunity as a hunch long before the world proclaims it as revolutionary. The supposed exceptions—not the rule.

When we dig deeper, we find that the secret of these visionaries isn’t necessarily their pioneering nature, but rather that they intuitively made connections others overlooked. Dollar Shave Club, the start-up that disrupted the men’s grooming industry by selling quality razors direct to consumers at a cheaper price point, didn’t pioneer the invention of the disposable razor, and they weren’t the first company to use an ecommerce platform to reach customers. The CEO Michael Dubin’s role was to make the unexpected connections between the industry’s existing business model and a customer experience that left a lot to be desired—to create a brand that people would trust and become loyal to. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent online social networks. Anita Roddick wasn’t the first to create a skincare company. James Dyson didn’t patent the first vacuum cleaner. Arianna Huffington didn’t launch the first online news website. Someone else was there with the ideas before them, but the people we celebrate and want to emulate had an inkling about how to breathe new life into those products and services by making them meaningful to those who would use them. It’s possible to become that kind of person intentionally by being more curious, empathetic and imaginative.

The successful innovator or entrepreneur sees what’s happening that shouldn’t be or what’s not happening that should be, and imagines a future positive outcome of creating solutions that become breakthrough ideas. His or her hunch is informed experience and ability to envisage what the future could look like. This kind of hunch is different from a lucky guess. When you try to predict the result of a coin flip, the call you make is not informed by insight about the likely outcome. It’s just a guess. When a black cat crosses your path (a sign of good luck in some cultures), and you immediately buy a lottery ticket because you have a hunch that it’s your lucky day, that’s superstition, not insight, and it’s unlikely to influence a fourteen-million-to-one chance favorable outcome. A hunch happens as a result of adopting a particular mindset and set of behaviors—by being curious and asking great questions, then daring to imagine the future. It doesn’t as we often think arrive in an instant—it takes practice. Breakthrough ideas are born by recognizing problems that are begging for a solution. They don’t happen by chance. Great ideas are rarely, if ever, stumbled upon.