How to come up with breakthrough ideas?

When we design software our goal is to make complex things easy for webmasters. So, we have to constantly think about the user interface. We sometimes redesign same functionality many times until we find a way that is easy to use but still flexible.

Today, we had another breakthrough idea on the new product we are working on. I define a breakthrough idea as one that make you say “how in the world I didn’t think of that before”. They are simple and elegant solutions to seemingly complex problems. Before we come up with an idea like that, we usually have a big mess. We are stuck and cannot find a good way out. We are almost ready to assume that there are no good solutions. We have thought of everything but the ideas we have are at best acceptable. They are not great. We don’t get excited when we think about implementing them. I think this is an important point. If we are not excited about what we are doing, we are probably doing it wrong.


Constantly Think About The Problem in Motion

Before I developed JotForm I thought about form builders and created many form builders for various projects. Although I incrementally implemented better ones I was never happy with the solutions. I knew there must be a better way. I just did not know what. Until the day in 2005 I found out about Script.aculo.us. and saw how smooth drag and drop can be made with JavaScript.

You cannot rush this. You have to find yourself sets of problems and you have to think about them. Sometimes for days, sometimes for months and sometimes even for years. Every new development you see around should make you think of these problems in a different perspective. Including a way of thinking in your solution might be the way out.

Breakthrough ideas usually come from combining seemingly unrelated ideas together. You need to think about the existing problems and at the same time browse around on random unrelated ideas and always combine things. I don’t think only thinking about a problem is enough. You must also be always on motion. Motion increases your chances of hitting a solution. The history is full of stories like this. A scientist sets out to research about something but suddenly he recognizes something else on accident.

Misunderstandings can be Good

Today we had a fortunate accident. We had a big confusion that resulted in a breakthrough solution for the user interface we were designing.

I was talking with Serkan about a solution to simplify a very complex task. During our discussion, he suggested something that I did not really understand. I thought he said “toolbar” when he really meant “toolbox”. So I corrected him. But he was actually talking about some other issue while I was thinking about something else. By misunderstanding him I had a totally new idea that we never considered before.

This was not the breakthrough idea though, since I was still thinking about a different issue, I did not see anything useful in the new approach. But he suddenly got excited. He told me how great idea that was. I still did not understand it until he explained to me. He actually took what I said about an unrelated task and plugged it into his solution. This was an incredibly elegant and simple solution to one of our complex tasks.

The chaos caused by misunderstandings was similar to the mutations that result in evolution. There is a very low chance that this will happen, but when it happens, it is like magic. You cannot believe how you did not see such a simple solution before. But it was impossible to reach there without the accidents. There was no way we could have come up with this solution if we did not talk about the problem many times and keep an open mind.

Don’t be afraid to get depressed

Best ideas can appear after a period of frustration about a particular problem. On one occasion, we thought about a problem all week. By the time it was Friday we were totally exhausted and frustrated. We left for the weekend without any solution. Then something magical happened. When we came back to office on Monday morning and sit down; we both had the same cool solution. The idea we just discovered was so simple and elegant that we couldn’t understand how we did not think of it the week before.

Apparently our minds already found the solution that week but our brain was too stretched to see the solution inside all other ball of ideas. When we left for the weekend, our unconscious minds sorted, mapped and filtered all solutions and got rid of everything that did not make sense. We were left with a single shiny solution on Monday morning.

Focus on a Particular Problem Domain

You need to think about a problem in depth to be able to come up with new ideas. If you are only scratching the surface, it is pretty hard to understand the underlying problems. The worst thing you can do is to constantly move from one idea to another without getting a deep knowledge on it. Too little focus will kill possibility of breakthrough ideas. If you are working on too many different things, your attention span will be shorter and you will not be able to channel your energy to a particular problem.

I think anyone can come up with breakthrough solutions. You just need choose your problems and sometimes spend years with them. Know the domain well. Know where things don’t seem to be working well. When there are a lot of people with the same problem and the solutions are not satisfactory, there is an opportunity. You can be the one to provide a good solution.

The idea you come up with might be very simple and may seem like anybody could have thought about it. But that’s usually not true. You have to spend a lot of time on a topic, experiment and research. Once you understand the whole picture, you will also understand how making small changes affects the whole system. You will see where things does not seem to be working. Then you will start thinking about how to improve it.

It is not easy to stay with a single problem for a long time. But the rewards are worth it. Even if you don’t come up with the breakthrough solution, if you are on the same problem space for a long time, you can instantly recognize an elegant solution and probably redesign it and make it better in a very short time.

Think about the problem domains you are most familiar with. Are you spending your time on them or are moving from one field to another without getting a high level of proficiency in any?

Best Working Environment for Creativity

One of my favorite authors Tom DeMarco always quotes a Tom Lister saying: “People under time pressure don’t think faster.”. Breakthrough ideas are like that. You cannot come up with them when you are burned out, tired or stressed. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Stressed environment will kill creativity since it optimizes for time and safety. It is easier to come up with ideas when things seem like fun. Relax and have fun. Don’t push yourself when you cannot think of anything. Just take a break and when you come back you will have better ideas.

You also need to have an open mind to reach any breakthrough idea. That’s why startups are pretty good places to come up with breakthrough ideas. They are open to new ideas and suggestions. On a startup, you are not part of a big well-defined machine, you are part of a team that is creating a new machine.

There are of course some large companies with an open mindset. One of them is Apple. Their slogan has been “Think Different”. They are probably one of the few companies that is continuously coming up with new breakthrough ideas. You need to give yourself permission to be different before you can get different ideas.

Embrace Constrains

Constrains are good for coming up with new ideas. It makes it easier to focus on a particular path and with focus you have to come up with new ideas to continue on your path. Whenever you restrict yourself you are also giving yourself a greater opportunity to come up with creative solutions. This is what happens when you are designing a software and you promise yourself to keep things simple stupid. So, you have to think hard and make it possible to accomplish a task with less steps. Artists know this very well. For example, when you are sculpting, the medium you are working on also shapes your work.

In short, here are some suggestions you should follow to come up with good ideas:
1. Choose yourself problem domains that interests you and stick with them for a long time.
2. Keep your working environment stress free and open to new ideas.
3. Keep yourself healthy. Regular exercise and good sleep will triple your creativity.

5 Responses to “How to come up with breakthrough ideas?”

  1. Funny you should recommend to focus on a particular problem domain when truly breakthrough ideas usually come from cross-pollination of ideas from dissimilar fields. People say about some creative folks that they are good at anything they touch. Specialization is for insects, creative people have wide and dynamic range of interests and *that’s* why they are good at everything they do.

    Focusing in general impedes creativity. You must have a relaxed mind to think outside the usual patterns. That’s where your Monday epiphany is coming from. People might conclude from your statement that preceding depression is the necessary component. But no, have your brain been relaxed the whole time, you might have come to your brilliant realization a week earlier.

    Also, do not confuse “being in the zone” with high concentration. In my opinion it’s the state of relaxed mind that makes you so creative and productive. Relaxed, *not* focused!

  2. Aytekin says:

    George,

    I agree with your points about cross-pollination. That’s actually what I tried to say above when I used the word “motion” couple of times. You should be open to other fields. But you still need to know your problem domains well so that when you see something on a different field, you can consider applying it in your own problem domain. If you do not have a good domain knowledge on a field, you probably cannot imagine ways to enhance it let alone know where the problems exist.

    It is not always possible to have a relaxed mind when you are trying to find a way out. You have to keep attacking the problem and this is not a relaxed process. The simple elegant solution came the week after we attacked the problem with all we got. So, I don’t think we would be able to reach this solution if we did not attack the problem for a week with no resolve. We forced our minds to work on the problem. We do not call this “breakthrough” for no reason. There is a wall that seem to be impossible to pass, but suddenly you find a way out.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  3. The more focused your brain is the harder it is to find a solution to even the simplest problem. (That’s a medical fact, by the way, not just my opinion.) You’ve got to relax and free yourself of all the assumptions to start thinking creatively. You want your team to find a creative solution to a difficult problem – make them as relaxed as possible. You want them to focus and implement a known solution in record time – put them under stress (deadline, bonus, etc.).

  4. VIPAON says:

    hello, do I have a problem with the jotform that upon going up an after i file receive the mail, doesn’t the file work me i me die that doesn’t exist, solution?

    by the way I speak a bad groin for that I am Spanish

  5. paul dsouza says:

    Aytekin,
    I just wanted to comment on how useful and usable your JotForm offering is. I used this form for my marriage invitation RSVP and it worked like a charm…!

    Thanks.

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