Brainstorming has been around as a quick-fix way to generate ideas for a long time now, and even has been teleported into the hi-tech age with such methodology as Tony Buzan’s “Mind Mapping.” Both hand-written and electronically generated spider charts and various other systems have been developed which formalize what many people had been doing for decades anyway, which basically involved doodling on a piece of paper.
Verbal brainstorming is popular, too, especially in its form of “think tanks” and “retreats” often used by corporations and other organizations to whip their people up into a frenzy of new ideas that ultimately will benefit the organization, and – we assume – the recipients of its services.
Whatever method suits you, beware of brainstorming for new ideas when the ground rules have not been set properly, though. I remember being asked to attend a brainstorming session for a very large chain of estate agencies (real estate brokers) some years ago. They had developed various new, hi-tech methods which bypassed many of the traditional ways of buying and selling homes and as such wanted to promote their uniqueness in a video. I was brought in by the production company to attend as the writer/producer and help them develop their thoughts.
After a very early start and a long drive I arrived at their offices in one of England’s loveliest northern cities, to find the group of company staff looking slightly haggard and worn after two hours’ debate over the bacon rolls and coffee. I was presented with a long list of reasons why their service was better than everyone else’s. Not wishing to wee-wee on their bonfire but also not wishing to spend the following two days there, I said, “OK, that’s great. But what is it we’re really doing here, with all these features that make the process easier?”
Blank looks all around.
“Isn’t it that we’re taking the stress out of buying and selling your home?”
Blank looks. Followed by smiles. And what had I done? Merely turned around that hairy old chestnut of features versus benefits. Now, because we were no longer looking at features, we could come up with ideas that were benefit-led and therefore far more likely to grab our audience.
Brainstorming is great – provided you set it up right. Remember, what we don’t need is solutions looking for problems.
What problems need to be solved?
Having warned you about the dangers of solutions looking for problems, whatever you do, don’t assume there aren’t any problems to solve. There are plenty. What you need to do, though, in your search for a good idea, is to ensure that you keep your eyes open for real problems in your particular market or topic area, and keep aware of what’s missing from whatever options there are currently to solve those problems.
Time, probably, is on your side. Solutions put forward to problems 10 or even 5 years ago, may no longer be appropriate and may indeed have been superseded by better solutions. Your solution might be even better still.
What are you really good at?
This may seem obvious, but have you really thought the uniqueness of your idea through? You know all there is to know about your topic, but in all fairness there may be other experts out there who are in the same position.
What is unique about you, though, is what will sell your idea. You may not even be aware that your ideas on your topic are unique, but hey – have a look back through your earlier musings, notes, essays, articles, papers, speeches, presentations, advertising, press releases, etc. I’d put money on the fact that you have a unique take on your topic. Find it, develop it, and make it happen.
If you have even the inkling of an idea, don’t be shy. Get out there and try it out. Ask around. You have a great deal to gain by sniffing out whatever sources you can to seek out to see whether your idea – or your germ of an idea – is worth taking further. Look for problems, in your area of expertise, that need solving – really need solving. Those can appear when you least expect it, so be vigilant. And keep asking around!
Watch your topic
This may seem glaringly obvious, but once you have an idea you need to watch very carefully to see what is being discussed about that particular topic. Or, should your idea be moving into uncharted waters, you need to keep abreast of everything that might be relevant.
Google Alerts are a very useful tool that can help you keep up with your topic all over the world. You simply set up however many words or phrases relevant to your topic that you want, and Google will email you whenever they are mentioned on the internet. It’s a free service, too. Obviously you need to be fairly precise in what words or phrases you search for, if you don’t want to receive a lot of irrelevant stuff along with the good bits.
Another helpful tool is Google AdWords. This is intended to help advertisers find out which key words and phrases, relevant to their product or service, are being searched for on Google, and in which volumes. It can be useful when checking out an idea, as well, because the results will give you an indication of overall interest in that idea or topic.
Of course, the whole of Google and other search engines are available to you and it’s well worth monitoring your topic or idea on a weekly or monthly basis while you’re developing it.
Cutting articles out of newspapers and magazines may seem like a rather charmingly old fashioned thing to do these days, but it’s amazing how many people still do it whenever they read something that either triggers an idea, or adds substance to an idea they are already playing around with.
In fact it’s probably worth packing a small pair of scissors in your briefcase or bag when you’re out and about, to make the process easier than tearing! (Avoid taking them in your hand luggage when you’re flying, though, or the security people may think you want to stab the pilot… ) You never know when you’ll see an article that you want to keep hold of – it’s just as likely to be while reading the paper on a train, or a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, as it is when you have deliberately set out to research something.
Needless to say you can get reasonable results from searching online versions of national and local newspapers, magazines, etc., then creating a “cuttings file” on your computer. However bear in mind that the contents of online and offline versions of publications are not always the same, and online versions often tend to be shorter and less detailed.
Protecting your idea
There is a very short and not very pleasant answer here: you can’t. You can copyright titles, texts, poems, novels, etc., and you can trademark a logo or product name, but until an idea is expressed and recorded in some considerable detail you can’t stop somebody else developing and exploiting it, or at least something very similar to it.
Once upon a time – at around the time that food intolerances became fashionable – I came up with a nifty idea to develop a range of dairy-free and gluten-free food products. Like a good citizen I consulted my friendly local Business Link advisor who said, “great idea, forget it.” When I asked why he said, “because your potential distributors, like supermarkets, will sit back and watch while you spend a fortune on developing the products, get a few samples from you, make the products themselves with small differences in names and ingredients, and then tell you to **** off.”
Another time I came up with an idea for a documentary series for one of the main TV channels in the UK. I made four consecutive presentations to so-called “commissioning editors” (who turned out afterwards to have been freelance, independent producers) who liked the idea very much. Then I heard nothing. 12 months later the channel aired a series using not only my idea, but even my title… the only thing they had changed was whereas I had suggested featuring three men and three women, they had six women. Although I had what seemed like a valid case, I was advised that should I try to take legal action they would mess me around with their expensive lawyers until I ran out of money.
It’s often a case of striking a balance. On the one hand you want to run your idea past sufficient people whose opinions you value, and this is a very important part of your development and refinement processes. On the other hand, though, you don’t want to talk about your idea in a busy pub, bar, restaurant or even bus or train, because you never know who might be listening.
And even if you write up your idea in some detail, it won’t necessarily be enough to prove it’s yours in a court of law. When I had my run-in with that TV channel (see above) my idea ran to a 20 page proposal with skeleton scripts of each episode and a full production and post-production budget. Yet my legal advice was still to forget it because I was “the little guy.” As I didn’t see myself as the next Erin Brockovitch, I put my hands up.
Essentially, the only real protection you can get is if your idea could only possibly be developed and written by you… and that anyone else couldn’t do it successfully without you.