THE BLOG
02/03/2012 03:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2012

On Brainstorming

I think people spend a lot of time thinking about ideas. I spend far too much time thinking about thinking about ideas. What is the structure and emotion of the mindset that comes up with a great idea? You're supposed to have a blank canvas right? Where you can be uninhibited, creative, counter-intuitive? But ... then you might start thinking about everything and so not one actual thing meaningfully. There aren't answers I suppose and I don't like getting stuck here, though my mind often drifts from ideas to the specific canals of thought process that lead to ideas.

When actually focusing on defining a new idea many factors can influence the process: trends, light bulbs going off, levels of passion, gut feeling, problems, what's next, the desire to hit a homerun in a snap second. Those rare few that don't wade through a field of muck to arrive at innovation baffle me. I can't not stumble, at least at first. AC, my friend and first ever employer, says that at first brainstorming is really just throwing stuff up on the wall and seeing what sticks. I get this and it sounds doable, unbounded, and possibly fun. So a first hint from AC: you have to start. There's no reason to stress about the particulars before there exists any generality to beget them. But what are we throwing? Where are we throwing it? What does it mean to stick?

Another friend Jake often talks about defining an authentic problem and specific audience that experiences it before addressing concepts that solve said problem. The problem seems at least more concrete and quantifiable than the idea. To give a parameter to why an idea should exist, the problem helps set the stage for the idea and define, at least at first, its scope. So there's the ammunition. We're tossing problems against the wall.

Of course, it doesn't end at a problem -- that's too general. Details emerge. What are the real issues causing the problem. Is there a vacuum? An inefficiency? A lack of information? And so begins the slipping and sliding down alleys and tributaries towards a specific idea. Process can emerge and vanish, concept can crystalize, shatter, and reform. In the madhouse of your own mind and with the whiteboard as an arrested crutch, the idea will pitch and froth and mutate as the clarity of the idea arises.

My advice items on this journey are extremely limited but here goes.

Keep it simple -- You want to change the world but you aren't going to change the whole world all at once. The necessary focus should be maintained around the simple problem-solution-idea that you've diagnosed and how to execute around it. Very few companies that set out to do too many things end up accomplishing any of them. It's hard enough to achieve a simple goal, so stay there until you do.

Write it down -- Our brains are simply not retaining information the way they might have a few years ago. And, no one remembers every whiz bang idea they come up with in the shower. Use Evernote, Omnifocus, notepad, Moleskin, or just email yourself, but record it. Otherwise, brilliance is lost on transient thought and ADD.

There shouldn't really be structure here. It needs to be frustrating, it's meant to be chaotic. There's no cloud yet for this process, it's called storming for a reason. I'll stick to the path of: problem-hypothesis-concept-idea with the notion that every step can disappear or change and maybe one day, in an instant, the lightbulb just goes off.