Thursday, June 4, 2020

Throwback Thursday: A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young


“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people” 
~ Leo Burnett

When I wrote about creativity and "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" I still had a few stories to add.

From series by artist Pere Salinas of Spain.
Years ago I worked for a company that did something I felt was fairly progressive. They hired a consulting firm to put the entire management team through the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator Test. After interpreting the results, and without telling us what they indicated, they had us go off campus for a couple days to have us do exercises that not only revealed who we ourselves were but also whom our peers were.

Those familiar with Myers-Briggs know that the first category has to do with the intuitive-sensing scale. Some people are extremely high on intuition and others quite reality based.

The first exercise we did involved having us sit at tables in groups of six to eight. Then the facilitator gave us each a large sheet of paper and a marker to write with. He picked up a chair, held it over his head upside down, and began throwing markers in the air while walking around the room making noises, occasionally repeating, "What am I doing."

The group at my table began writing furiously. I thought he was a soldier in a pillbox and the markers were bullets exploding. Another at my table saw them as sparklers or fireworks. All kinds of translations were recorded for the duration of time that was allotted and when we finished the sheet of paper was nearly filled with possibilities.

Our lists we then read to everyone in the room, and the findings proved hilarious. We did not know that we'd been placed at tables based on how each of us ranked on the Intuitive scale. As it turns out, my table was comprised of the most intuitive/creative people in the company. When our list of interpretations was read to the group there was laughter. No where on our list were statements like, "He's walking around with a chair over his head." Or "He's throwing markers into the air."

By way of contrast, the table made up of the most extreme Sensing people had not one creative interpretation. Their list said, "He is holding a chair over his head and throwing markers into the air." And I'm not sure they added anything else to that list.

There were a number of takeaways from this first exercise. One of these was the surprising realization that all of the people in our finance department were at the S table. The facilitator noted, "Isn't it nice to know that the people counting the money and balancing the books are not doing it creatively?"

I'm in advertising, one of the professions where highly intuitive/creative people thrive. Hence, a number of good books about creativity have been written by ad agency heads. One of these is A Technique for Producing Ideas (McGraw-Hill Advertising Classic) by James Webb Young, New edition (2003).

The book is a relatively short -- no, very short -- volume that essentially outlines the five key steps in the creative process. For many people, including creative people, creativity is in essence a mystery. Hence, we hear of writers waiting for their muse, artists waiting for inspiration. But if you're in the advertising game, do you really just wait around for inspiration to strike out of the blue? Are there ways to prime the pump? Are great ideas really only a matter of chance?

In the second chapter of Young's little volume he tells about how ancient mariners, as they traversed wide open seas, would suddenly come across lovely atolls above the waters. The unexpected had an air of magic about it. "And so it is, I thought, with Ideas," Young writes. "They appear just as suddenly above the surface of the mind; and with the same air of magic and unaccountability."

Scientists understand that these atolls don't really just appear out of nowhere. They are the product of countless, unseen coral builders working below the surface of the sea. So Young asked himself, "Is an idea, too, like this? Is it only the final result of a long series of unseen idea-building processes which go on beneath the surface of the conscious mind?"

But he went further, wondering if these processes can be identified so they can be stimulated, corralled, developed into a formula. The fundamental prod behind all this was a single quest: "How do you get ideas?"

Young continues: "This brought me to the conclusion that the production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just a must a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool."

A little further in the book Young writes, "What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced; and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas."

What constitutes an "idea" you may ask. According to Vilfredo Pareto "an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements." (EdNote: You may be familiar with Pareto due to the principle named after him, a.k.a. the 80-20 rule.)

Young affirmed that “knowledge is basic to good creative thinking,” but that this is not enough. Rather, “knowledge must be digested and eventually emerge in the form of fresh, new combinations and relationships.”

I referenced the book in a 2008 blog post and see that you can purchase your own used copy for one penny plus shipping here at Amazon.

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EdNote: Picture at top right by Spanish artist Pere Salinas.
Related: New Work by Pere Salinas

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