What makes a good idea?

By Greg Bruce

Greg Bruce goes to university to learn how ideas are made.
Roughly 55 times a second the connections between the clusters of neurons carrying thought and emotion through our brains are scrambled, throwing together ideas and concepts in new ways. Photo / Getty
Roughly 55 times a second the connections between the clusters of neurons carrying thought and emotion through our brains are scrambled, throwing together ideas and concepts in new ways. Photo / Getty

A couple of months ago, Jamie Newth, co-ordinator of the University of Auckland's terribly named four-week Ideate! Validate! programme, stood at the front of one of the university's enormous business school classrooms and displayed a terrible-looking webpage that was an early version of YouTube, back when YouTube was still a video dating site.

The 40 or so students in the room laughed and oohed with pleasure at the fact that the internet once looked this bad, and that the entrepreneurial geniuses of YouTube might once have been so dumb as to have not foreseen that the future of dating was actually location-based rejection-swiping.

A week before, the Ideate! Validate! students had gathered for the first time at the university's business school to come up with new ideas of their own.

Now they were gathering to learn about how to learn from the learnings of YouTube, and what to do next with their own business ideas. In three weeks' time, they would present their final ideas to a Dragon's Den-style panel of business people, who would offer them feedback, support or unbridled criticism.

One group was starting a sort of dating website. Another, called Pretty Ugly, wanted to distribute unsaleable fruit to the underprivileged. A third, called Feel Good, Period, wanted to create a buy one/donate one model for female sanitary products.

By far the most boring-sounding group, Weaver, was dominated by young engineers who had inherited some kind of new 3D printing technology, developed as part of a PhD project at the university's engineering school. Their idea was to take that technology to market.

I sat in on their discussion for a little while, as they talked about their product and who they might sell it to. I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

Roughly 55 times a second, says University of Auckland adjunct professor Peter Lee, who lectures on the topic of ideas, the connections between the clusters of neurons carrying thought and emotion through our brains are scrambled - throwing together ideas and concepts in new ways. Researchers have known about this process for some time, but they used to think it was just noise. Now they know better.

Because connections in an empty brain are deeply infertile, this process is only effective if the brain is first loaded with information, knowledge, experience, emotion and expertise - with the greatest density roughly configured around the area in which the would-be ideator is trying to ideate.

"So," Lee says, "intense emotion, hard thinking, grinding it out, then walking away from it, having a night's sleep, having a long walk, having a vacation, but then having the confidence - something I had trouble accepting with my engineering background, but I do now - that there's another part of the brain, a natural function, that's whirring away busily in the background, trying to find those novel connections to give you those bright ideas."

The literature on ideas often cites the 17th and 18th century English coffee houses, where people used to gather for all-in arguments, yelling across the room, shaking sticks at each other and falling off chairs, according to drawings of the time. The London Stock Exchange was born in a coffee house, so was its insurance industry.

"Where are the coffee houses of today?" Lee asks, "where people consciously go to have a good argument, to really listen and learn and contribute and build?"

In part, the answer to his question is tertiary business school classrooms like the one of Ideate! Validate! It was too civil and structured obviously, but it was at least a start - a place where the free exchange of ideas was made possible.

Newth and an industry mentor, Duncan Ledwith, circulated among the groups. The students were beginning to look at crossing over from ideation to validation.

The validation stage would involve asking real potential customers - the person on the street - whether they thought the business as a whole, or specific parts of it, were good ideas. Ledwith appeared strangely enthusiastic about the idea that they might not be.

At one stage, discussing one team's need to find out whether people would be prepared to act as volunteer courier drivers for their social enterprise, he told them to stop 20 or 30 people on the street and ask them. If they said no, then the team would know their idea was no good. "Boom! Shot dead! And don't dwell on it," he said. The imagery of death was strangely out of keeping with the upbeat tone in which he discussed it.

Everywhere, the entrepreneurial literature talks of "pivoting", shifting direction when your existing direction is failing. Pretty much all successful businesses do it. Facebook, famously; YouTube, famously; Instagram, and so on and on - all these places started out as ideas far worse than what they became.

Ledwith's message was that good ideas are everywhere, that they're not actually the product of a single moment of inspiration, but the demolition of multiple moments of inspiration. "You're trying to surface objections to have a reason to kill it quickly," he told the students.

"The first idea," Lee said, "don't fret it, it's just kind of a ticket to the game."

Newth said: "The idea is just a starting point, a big-arse guess that you go out and test by talking to potential customers. There's the occasional eureka moment, but usually it's a slow hunch combined with another hunch and a whole bunch of evidence."

At the end of the four weeks, I sat through some of the students' final pitches and I was mostly quite disappointed. I was hoping some group or other would have radically pivoted, but mostly their ideas hadn't changed very much. Some sounded good; some sounded bad. Until they went to market, nobody could really be sure which was which.

When the pitches were all finished, I left the room and was about to get in the elevator when one of the students approached me. His name was Alexander Kool and he was one of the team behind Weaver, the 3D printing technology that I hadn't understood two weeks earlier. I had missed Weaver's final pitch because I had arrived late.

Kool stopped me, introduced himself, told me he was disappointed I had missed their pitch and handed me a printed copy of the slides from their presentation, which I flipped through and found completely impenetrable.

Because he was the only one of the students in the Ideate! Validate! Programme to approach me, I asked him why he had.

"What I've picked up from this programme," he said "is that success is nothing to do with any one part of the process - you need to develop them all, so it's not just our product, it's our team dynamic, our diversity, how we appear to the public. All that kind of stuff we need to think about."

Until then, I had had no intention of mentioning his project in this article. I didn't understand it, for one, and it just didn't sound that cool, compared to, say, ugly fruit or a hospital truck.

The Weaver team had turned up on day one of the Ideate! Validate! programme already with an idea, possibly even a good one, but after four weeks, they had learned that an idea is only a beginning.

One of the three industry experts Weaver had pitched to that day had seemed particularly interested in their idea. I called that expert, Jaco Pretorius, to ask what he had liked about it.

There were two things: first that it was based on top-level PhD research and therefore had technical substance. Second, it identified a genuine gap in the market for 3D printing, between the low end - which is mostly about making toys and moulds - and the high-end - where cost is no object and aircraft parts are among the items being produced.

He also mentioned a third thing: the importance of people. He said the fact that Kool had been prepared to approach somebody like him, with a platform that could help Weaver was a good idea.

However, Pretorius, himself a successful entrepreneur, was at pains to point out that he had committed nothing except advice and goodwill to Weaver - that they still had a long way to go before their idea became a success or even a reality.

"As you know, nine out of 10 of these things fizzle out and never go anywhere."

- Canvas

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