How can I find original ideas?

Are there strategies to coming up with an original idea?

An abundance of ideas

Having ideas is a matter of disciplined thinking, as we have explored previously on a post about idea generation.

But how do we make those ideas original? What can we do to move towards unique ideas? How do we avoid tried and tested, one might say clichéd, ideas?

How do some people seem to always have original ideas?

The zenith of creativity is what we term the original idea. There are many arguments that state there is no such thing as an original idea. No less a figure than Mark Twain is often quoted saying “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible.” I believe this is a semantic argument over the definition of an idea and indeed originality.

Is it possible that some old ideas can be combined or viewed in a new context to create a new idea? Here at MundoNovus, we think it is entirely possible to view such a case as a new idea and not only that, an original idea.

An idea is only a thought that points towards an opportunity or possibility. An original idea is a thought that points out a new path towards that opportunity or possibility.

There’s no chance of their having a conscious glimpse of the truth as long as they refuse to disturb the things they take for granted and remain incapable of explaining them. For if your starting-point is unknown, and your end-point and intermediate stages are woven together out of unknown material, there may be coherence, but knowledge is completely out of the question.”

– Plato, The Republic – Ancient Greek Philosopher and writer of the Republic


The book Originals by Adam Grant has some good insight into how we can find original ideas. Grant breaks down three methods for generating and selecting original ideas. These are:

Questioning the status quo

When looking for new ideas it is a good start to ask fundamental questions about the way we do things. Have we stumbled into a position of accepting that things are done a certain way, because that it the way they are done? Bear in mind, if this was the way we all thought we would still be reading by candlelight. Perhaps we’d be listening to stories or news from a balladeer, as books would not have replaced the oral tradition.

Questioning the status quo is a habit that we need to consistently work at applying. By exercising this habit it becomes easier to use and something of a superpower in spotting opportunities. One of the reasons we are held back in questioning the status quo is through relying on our habitual thinking. Our brains are efficient, they will take shortcuts when one is available. This means following the connections we have made before.

These connections of B follows A or a previous followed solution to a problem become physical connections between neurons in our brain. We are seldom conscious that we are even taking a shortcut. So we need to challenge our default thinking.

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. `{`With analogy`}` we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. `{`With first principles`}` you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.

– Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, Co-Founder of Neuralink and Open Ai

Thinking from First Principles

To get an original idea, building our knowledge by reasoning from first principles as our method allows us to return to the fundamental proposition or assumption we have. Aristotle describes reasoning from first principles as:

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements.

– Aristotle – Greek Philosopher and Polymath

Aristotle gives us the method for stripping any problem back to the fundamental truths. As Elon Musk points out, in  the quote above, our aim is to avoid “doing this because it’s like something else”. We often accept things as knowledge when we reason by analogy without question. This is a mistake, as we effectively outsource our thinking to the origin of that analogy.

Using this method, we can also avoid many of our cognitive biases that can lead us into habitual thinking.

Having more ideas

We have previously explored the topic of generating more ideas in our blog post Don’t stop! Have at least another 20 ideas. It is important to have many ideas to pull from. Exploring each idea, even if it does not work as we need, allows us to gain insights that can help elsewhere. By generating many ideas, we are able to move our brain away from habitual thinking. We challenge ourselves to come up with more ideas once we exhaust the obvious possibilities.

The killer idea is born out of practice and rarely arrives fully formed to someone who has not worked hard to get it. Think about some of the great ideas and innovations of the past. They are usually born of many attempts.

  • Van Gogh painted over 900 paintings in his short career, highly prolific by most measures, yet only a handful (Starry night, Sunflowers, the self portrait without his ear and the one of the café terrace at night) are world famous.
  • Irving Berlin published over 1500 songs in his long life, but I’m hard pushed to name more than a few. White Christmas, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek and Alexander’s Ragtime Band are as far as I get before I have to go and look some more up.
  • Agatha Christie wrote 75 novels in her lifetime but other than Murder on the Orient Express many people struggle to name many of them.

This is not to say that being prolific is likely to make your work successful or original. After all, Dame Barbara Cartland wrote 723 novels (mainly in the romance genre) yet I could not name one of them.

Needless to say, finding an original idea is helped, enormously, by generating an abundance of ideas. This is because the quality of our ideas increases the more we have, a phenomena known as the Serial Order Effect.

Adam Grant, the aforementioned author of Originals puts it as “When it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.”

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.

– Stephen Hawking – English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author

Gather Feedback

As much as we like to lionise those who have ideas, it is rare for a person to work alone, having brilliant, original ideas. There is a reason Sir Isaac Newton said he’d been “Standing on the shoulders of giants”. He worked with help from his peers. He read the papers his peers and those before him had published.

When we work with our peers and solicit their feedback, we make better choices of which ideas to pursue. According to cognitive research papers published by Hamada, Nakayama & Saiki the wisdom of crowds and collective decision-making outperforms individual judgment.

However, it is not as simple as that, as we must be wary of groupthink too.

Beware of groupthink

If everyone is thinking alike then no one is thinking.

– Benjamin Franklin – American polymath and founding father of the United States

David McRaney puts it well in his book You are not so smart.

“When a group of people come together to make a decision, every demon in the psychological bestiary will be summoned. Conformity, rationalisation, stereotyping, delusions of grandeur – they all come out to play, and no one is willing to fight them back into hell because it might lead to abandoning the plan or a nasty argument.”

So how do we embrace the wisdom of crowds whilst avoiding groupthink?

We will write a full article on this in the future. For now some ideas on avoiding groupthink are to:

  • Use facilitated meetings to avoid acquiescence to the highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO).
  • Solicit opinions from a variety of sources.
  • Don’t attempt to make decisions until exploration of the subject or problem has taken place.
  • Explore blind canvassing of opinion.
  • Avoid using leading questions – this is where an independent facilitator can help.
  • Test the groups decision before committing to it. Treat each idea as a bad idea and actively search for the faults.

Through using these techniques, some of the faulty logic used within groupthink can be avoided.

Get in touch with us and we can co-create new strategies that can help your organisation and teams be ready for whatever comes around the corner. Let’s play!

By: Mart Gordon

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