19 Apr 2018

How to… have ideas

The most valuable currency in business isn’t technology, or offices, or even talent, which will always come and go – it’s ideas. Ideas solve problems.

Nick Eagleton, Creative Partner

Ideas invent what’s next. Ideas inspire people. Ideas last. And best of all, anyone can have them. For free. 

Advertising legend Maurice Saatchi said, ‘Creativity is the last legal way of gaining an unfair business advantage.’

The myth of the creative genius or the Eureka! moment is just that, a myth. Genius is most definitely not required to have great ideas. In fact, it’s the very thing that makes us human – homo sapiens was the first species equipped with the perfect problem-solving brain. All it takes is a bit of method, and lots of hard work. But don’t worry – it’s the most fun hard work can be.

You only need to know how to do four things to start getting that unfair advantage.


Albert Einstein (supposedly) said that if he had an hour to save the world, he’d spend 55 minutes working out what the problem was and five minutes looking for the solution. It’s a made-up story, but a valuable reminder nonetheless. More time is wasted in business solving the wrong problem, or even no problem at all, than anything else. Before you begin having ideas, you have to know your problem. And not in a 10-page document or a PowerPoint presentation. In one line. It's the single most important part of the process. To distill down the challenge into a single sentence forces you to focus on what really matters – the real challenge, or the real opportunity. When Ridley Scott pitched Alien to the film studios, ‘Jaws in space’ was enough to tell everyone what he way trying to achieve. Having your one line will keep you true when you start having the actual ideas. You’ll need it.


Now for the fun part. And the more fun you have, the better ideas you’ll have. A playful, open mind is the most valuable tool here. Steve Jobs said that creativity is simply connecting things. So to come up with creative and unexpected ideas you’ll need to connect lots of different things, many of which might not seem relevant at first sight. The more things you connect, the more potential for something genuinely original to appear. Use what you know, what you love, what you hate, what you do outside of work, whatever comes to hand at that moment. Harry Beck, an electrical engineer, designed the London Underground map not like a map but like an electrical wiring diagram – a brilliantly effective solution is all you need to know underground is what connects to what, not how far things are from each other.


That’s all very well when the ideas keep coming, but what do you do when you get stuck? Rest assured, getting stuck is part the creative process. Our brains get all in a tangle, and that’s because we’ve been working them so hard. Consider it a badge of pride. The trick with getting unstuck is to acknowledge it and to do something about it, right away. Don’t just go round in circles writing down the same ideas you’ve already had. Any change of activity helps in fact. People swear by going for a walk, to the pub, and Woody Allen is one of the many fans of taking a shower to keep the ideas flowing. The other, and I think more powerful way to get unstuck is to, as NASA would say, ‘work the problem’. Question what you’re doing and it’s amazing what new avenues open up. Here are a few good questions to ask to get unstuck: How can I challenge convention? Don’t be shy here, really break some rules. It will cost you nothing and can be a lot of fun; Can I turn a negative into a positive? Some of the best ideas come from accepting a weakness and making a strength. The unexpected advantage can be the most powerful; Am I solving the wrong problem? We all make assumptions when problem solving, but often these are in our minds, not in reality. Look for the elephant in the room, the missing insight, and everything can make sense.


You’ve nailed your problem in a line. You’ve burned through stacks of post-it notes connecting things and generally having fun with ideas. You’ve even got yourself unstuck and found an unexpected solution by asking some tough questions (or by taking a shower). But an idea only truly exists when you share it with someone else. If you want a good idea to live, and you’re going to need to bring people along, you need a good story for it. Start with your one line – there’s no faster or more effective way to explain what your idea is for. This is your Why. Then get right to the point – less is always more if the thinking is strong. A nice little sketch can make the world of difference too – even a bad sketch beats more words. This is your What. A few words on what it will take to make it a reality – your How – and you’re done. So, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike (it won’t), or leaving the ideas to the ‘people who have ideas’ (we’re all people who have ideas), get started. It’s the most fun work can be.

On 24 April Nick will be hosting ‘Ideas, Ideas, Ideas’ workshop at D&AD Festival, ‘an intense, high-energy and completely interactive session full of tips and techniques on how to have brilliant ideas’. Get your tickets here.