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Friday 29 July 2011

A surefire way of generating ideas

Carrying the body of Saint Cuthbert
In the warm Southern Seas atolls suddenly appear above the water. An astonishing happening that has spurred so many romantic tales. Yet these new ‘isles’ aren’t magical creations; they are the product of the relentless work of countless unseen coral building organisms working below the ocean’s surface. Could it be that idea generation is similar—a myriad of unseen building processes below the surface of the mind? That was the thought that prompted a young publishing executive, James Webb Young, to write his 1939 book, A Technique for Producing Ideas. In just 48 pages he details what those unseen processes are and how any of us might use them.
I’ll try to sum those pages up in a paragraph:
The crucial principle is the fact that an idea is nothing more or less than a combination of old elements. What enables those old ideas to be combined in new ways is a person’s ability to see relationships between disparate things. In order, therefore, to generate new ideas a person needs to cultivate a habit of mind that’s always looking for relationships between things, facts, and experiences.  The method goes through five steps
1.    Gather raw material—as much information as you can that is related to your topic/product/focus. Be interested in everything because general knowledge is a key part of this material gathering.
2.    Digest the raw material you’ve gathered. Feel your way into each bit of information, turn it over in your mind, think on multiple meanings and significances, note things down, draw charts and pictures, and let it be a great jumble of ideas. This process should continue, advises Young, until you’re well and truly tired of it!
3.    Drop the whole thing. Go and do something you enjoy and forget about it. On many occasions this will be a period of literally sleeping.
4.    Take up the task again. Constantly think about it and the new idea will appear, often when you least expect it. It doesn’t need to be forced.
5.    Shape the idea into practical usefulness. This often comes much more easily than you could possibly have imagined during stage two because good ideas often have a self-expanding quality to them. Be patient in this shaping process and share it with other people.

It is such a simple process to understand. Unfortunately it is often hard to practice. Nevertheless I’m certain Young got it right. New ideas come from old ideas and spotting relationships is essential to generating those new ideas. This is a tried and trusted way of composing sermons, though perhaps not often so obviously systematized.
What’s already known is the key to what may be known. That is the way our imaginations work and that’s why it is so important to have a memory well stocked with the stories, concepts and symbols of our inherited tradition. Without that raw material available to us, the recognition of connections that generate exciting and motivating new ideas is so much harder. The collective memory of the community of faith is the powerhouse of good news—ideas that are new.

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