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The anatomy of an idea

I was seriously stressed. It was three weeks before the deadline and I wasn't confident we would deliver. There had been setback after setback, then life gave me a lemon. But before I get to that, I want to talk to you about how I visualise what an idea looks like; the anatomy of an idea if you will.

You might think of an idea as a singular thing. But prod a little deeper, and an idea is composed of thousands of other ideas that someone has connected together to give the new idea meaning. It's a bit like looking at a galaxy through a telescope - magnify it a bit more and it's the millions of stars within it that give it light.

For me the most creative part of generating new ideas is in how you connect pre-existing ideas, to give your new concept meaning and originality. The people who generate the most ideas in our brainstorms are the people who loosen up their mind and think laterally: they make connections between lots of different ideas and package them up into a new idea or concept.

The most creative part of generating new ideas is in how you connect pre-existing idea

But the connections we make are limited by our own experiences, memory and imagination. However, bring another person into the equation and suddenly you open up a whole new world; exponentially expanded the possible number of connections that can be made. The key is to be open to an unexpected connection.

So back to that lemon. It was three weeks to the deadline and we had yet to lock down a concept for our latest animation project. It was an animation to open Sustainable Brands 2014 and it needed to be really good. We wanted to do something different, to cut through the noise and to set the tone for the conference: Reimagine, Redesign, Regenerate. We wanted to create a modern day fable of sorts to give the story a backbone. In the blur of an impending deadline, I had decided to run with an idea that I had developed alone. I wrote up the treatment and let it fly. I won't go into detail, but it involved a businessman that could only look backwards. I thought it rocked, but sadly the client didn’t.

It was back to square one and the deadline was palpably close. We had a crisis call with the client; I thought we could still pull it off - just – but it would involve an intense brainstorm, luck and some late nights. On the call, KoAnn - the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands – said that she wondered whether the proverb "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" had any legs. With my mind centred in on logistics, I brushed aside the idea and said that I was confident we could develop a smashing new idea and have it all ready for the deadline.

But sitting down with the creative team later that afternoon, my mind started making connections around the lemonade idea. I opened it to the team and ideas started flooding in; why don't we tell the story of a lemonade stall that grows into a global beverage company that then goes back to their roots and starts again, only better?; why don't we use the conference logo to make cute characters?; why don't we call the new company 'Lemonaid'?; why don't we give it a pastel palette and a quirky 50s track to make it stand out?. Connections starting forming and before long we had the winning idea. The client loved how we had build on the idiom and two long weeks later the animation opened Sustainable Brands 2014 with a bang: we couldn't have been happier.

I took two key learnings from the whole process:

  1. Never develop ideas in isolation; the more people involved in the the process (within reason) the more varied, original and robust your ideas will be.
  2. Always be open to inspiration from unexpected sources; it could give you the connection that leads to the winning idea.

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