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By Matt Paulin

At the Seattle Think Tank events we do mental exercises that helps the group generate large numbers of ideas. They are something like party game.  With the hope of coming up with some new mental exercise, I’m trying to track ideas to their sources.  I do believe that there are a limited number of sources for ideas and source itself defines the purpose of the idea.  In this article I want to propose all the sources of ideas I could think of.  

Please tell me if you know of other sources for your ideas.  

Ideas from solving problems.

It all starts with the thought, “There must be a better way”.   Then your mind races through its experiences, tricks, and whatever else can light up in your brain.  Out the other side comes a solution.   

I think this is the most common source of ideas.  It is the most repeatable and at least you know you will get a result.  I seems that companies go through this loop constantly.  They survey or study what is wrong with products and then solve these problems.  It is an iterative approach to figuring out what to do next and it probably the easiest type of idea to judge.

Ideas from playing.

You find something on your desk and the thought “What can I do with this?” pops into your head.  Suddenly, you are visualizing using the item to hold open a door, make a tiny wrecking ball, or a valve to prevent coffee spills.  These are the more whimsical fun ideas.  Its actually pretty easy, pick any object near you and try to think of all the things you could use it for.  You will get an idea out of this.

Ideas from miscommunication.

I love it when this happens but, it is absolutely unpredictable.  Maybe you have had this experience.  You walk up to a friend and tell them your idea for solving a problem.  It’s complex, and they are not paying attention, and hear something different.  They don’t quite understand but try to figure out what you are talking about.  So your friend debates with you about your idea.    After several minutes you both realize that no one was on the same page but, the idea that came out of it was much better than the one you started on. No one really was the source of it.  But both people walk away amazed that this popped up.  

Ideas from a change in resources.  

When a new technology or cheaper becomes available it can change the landscape of what was possible. Think about the music industry and rise of computers.  They are wandering along building a nicely profitable business and then this wildfire of tech rolls over the top of them.  This happened because of all the changes in the way information is distributed.  The same sort of things happen in any industry when an assumed constant, suddenly changes.  Good places to look for innovation would be anywhere you know a resource is about to change price.  

This is very similar to finding idea by solving problems except certain solutions were not practical until a resource cost change occurred.  These are also really good places to look for business ideas.  Many of the problems a new material or cheaper resource can solve are old problems.  But, everyone else has forgotten that the problem existed.

Ideas from politics

This is similar to changes in resources in that it can affect a whole host of other technologies.  Mainly the expectation is that an announcement is made and puts pressure on a set of problems to be solved.  Perhaps money or just getting calling out that certain problems exist can get innovated people to focus on solving these problems.  It might also cause a change in the cost of the resources that were being focused on and thus a host of new business problems and solutions changed.

Ideas from research

Imagine you are grinding through the scientific process.  Making a theory, proving or disproving something and hoping to write a paper about it.  And then… Something really strange happens, you get some results that were totally unexpected.  So you rerun the experiment, and the same thing happens again.  Now your original question is mundane.  But, as you learn more about what you are seeing you start to realize just what the implications are. As you realize what is now possible, a whole mess of ideas come into your head because you have seen something no one else knows of.  This didn’t come from solving a problem, but finding out what is possible.  These are my favorite ideas because they were always right in front of us. We just were blind to the possibilities until our perspective changed.

Ideas come from competition.  

This is similar to idea from research in that a disbelief was shattered, however it wasn’t from figuring out the universe, the inspiration came from seeing someone else do it first.

One of my other favorite bits of history is the space program.  The space program was not as much about putting people in space.  It was more about one country vs another in a race to get the upper hand.  No one thought you could get into orbit, then they didn’t think you could do a high orbit, then they didn’t think you could get to the moon.  But, every time one country would pull it off and then the other country would do something almost the same very quickly afterwords.  This bar raising was amazing as vast groups of problems were solved almost overnight.  I do believe that the competition between these countries changed their expectations of what was possible.  Maybe this is less a source of ideas but, it is certainly a good situation to push a group to work together solve problems.

Ideas from zoning out.

De-focus, day dream, go into that side of your mind that doesn’t use words, but images, shapes, visualization.  Find patterns that are the same and match them.  Pull from one set of shapes and map it over another.  

If you can get your mind to relaxes from stress, worry and too much focus it might just start making connections between things that it never has before.  I wouldn’t say these are not great ideas but, they are ideas.  Somewhat like idea from playing but, with no objective.  Who knows what connections you will make when your mind isn’t focused on its usual topics.


The source of the idea gives a little hint into what was desired.  Ideas that solve problems build good foundations for companies.   Where ideas from day dreaming are amusing and maybe better for the creative space; writing, art, and fun.  Depending on your mood and objective you might want to use one source of ideas over another.

Do you have a secret source of ideas that exist outside of what I listed here?  I would love to know.  If we knew the source of the ideas then maybe we can find a better way to generate them.

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