How to Have A Million-Dollar Idea (Jun, 1955)
How to Have A Million-Dollar Idea
Brainstorming is the new, exciting system that turns your wildest ideas into profits.
By Ardis and Kay Smith
THE meeting of the engineering staff of the National Biscuit Co. in Buffalo began on a sour note. For the umpteenth time a coal crane fuse had blown on the company’s Lake Erie loading dock, leaving the operator stranded on his perch above a 900-ton mountain of fuel, a long way from the fuse box. The usual din of machinery drowned out the distress signals he sounded on a klaxon.
Before going on to more serious problems, Engineer Edward Yehle proposed to cure the fuse-box headache with a “brainstorming” session. This is a popular exercise in the Creative Thinking class he attends at the University of Buffalo. Brainstorming, he explained to his amused colleagues, is a jam session of “thinking-up” in which all parties let fly ideas, like musicians sounding off with hot licks. Quantity of ideas, no matter how wild, is the aim. Evaluation comes later.
When the Nabisco group gave brainstorming a whirl, valid notions were mixed with gags (“Let him take his lunch. When the fuse blows, he eats.”) But a dozen or so serious suggestions were piled up—and two were successfully combined: a 200-foot line was rigged from the crane operator to a boiler plant steam whistle, within easy hearing of an electrician near the fuse box. Simple? Well, nobody had thought of it, Mr. Yehle points out, during months of annoyance.
This episode is a minor practical application of methods developed by Creative Education Foundation, whose purpose is to teach people to think up useful ideas and work them out profitably.
In the Foundation’s office in downtown Buffalo the educational map grows amazingly from day to day. To three pioneer classes at the University of Buffalo more than 300 others have been added. There are Creative Thinking classes or Idea Workshops in great universities such as Columbia, M. I. T., Michigan, California, Northwestern, Notre Dame; in the Air Force ROTC; in industries like General Motors, B. F. Goodrich, General Electric; in schools, clubs and YMCA’s. Anyone interested can find out how to get a class started by writing to the Creative Education Foundation, 1614 Rand Bldg., Buffalo 3, N. Y.
Originator of this educational mush- room and president of the Foundation is Alex F. Osborn, a lean, athletic gentleman of 66. You may know him from his books, How To Think Up, Your Creative Power, Wake Up Your Mind and the text-book Applied Imagination (Scribners)—or as the final initial of BBD&O, the famous advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn.
Mr. Osborn does not claim to have originated all his methods. But he has organized them into a system which is sure to help anyone understand and use his natural creativity. His how to procedure is built on his own experience, buttressed by the applied methods of the world’s foremost original thinkers. “This is not to say that you can put on a magic thinking cap and invent the wheel,” he says. “You are more likely to begin with a short-cut in office detail, an improvement in shop routine or a do-it-yourself home decorating project.”
A salesman in one Creative Thinking class got a $100 bonus recently for suggesting that low, head-bruising pipes in his firm’s factory be outlined with luminous paint. An accountant reports solving home problems in family brain- storm meetings. A secretary made gay pins and earrings for gifts by cutting up tops of frozen orange juice cans and decorating them with enamel. Another student panelled a wall of his house with split bamboo salvaged from a batch of old porch shades bought for $3.00.
“Don’t be discouraged if your ideas don’t lead directly to your goal,” Mr. Osborn urges. “Don’t dismiss any idea as useless. It may not apply to your problem, but it may lead to another that does. Or it may open up a new field. Lucky accidents, sudden strokes of genius, ideas from nowhere come to people who have formed the creative habit. A flash may come when you’re coasting—but coasting implies that power has previously been applied.”
How do you turn on creative power?
“Well, the first thing you must do is to separate the two main kinds of thinking—creative and judicial. This is not as simple as it sounds. At school, on the job, you have been trained to learn facts and exercise judgment. These are fine, but they must be kept in their proper place. Used too soon, they can stifle creativity. You may find that your imagination, which took you on such wonderful flights in your childhood, has become stiff and creaky. It will take a lot of conditioning to make it soar again.
“Just getting started may be the hardest part at first. So make a date with yourself. Set a definite time or place. It doesn’t have to be a soundproof room—you may find your mind works best while bathing, shaving, riding to work or doing some routine chore.”
Ready? Here’s the procedure:
1. Set a target and focus on it. Put it in writing. It may take the form of a question: How can I add a room to my home? How rid the neighborhood of starlings? Could a TV quiz for children be designed to compete with blood-and-thunder? Does anyone really want a better mousetrap?
2. Analyze your target. This is one of the times judicial thinking should be applied. Have you stated the problem clearly? Perhaps it’s too complex to tackle as a whole and should be divided into sections. Are you sure the goal is worth while?
3. Having picked your objective, you now do some spade-work. Dig up related facts and material. Do this thoroughly, but don’t get bogged down by overdoing it. Go on to the next two steps; then you may have to dig again for facts you don’t yet know you will need.
4. Now you’re ready for thinking-up. This is the time to suspend judgment. Forget what others have done, what they say can’t be done. Let yourself go. Have a brainstorm. Keep asking yourself, “What else?” And write down every idea, no matter how idiotic it may seem.
5. Now it’s time for incubation. Let up, sleep on it, change pace. The big idea may come to you. If it does, write it down. Keep a pad and pencil near your bed. This period of relaxation will freshen you for tomorrow’s attack.
6. This is the day for putting the pieces together. You may throw out most of your ideas now, but the chance of finding a good one is many times greater than if you had judged them one by one.
7. Will it work? The final step is testing. The extent of this depends, of course, on the kind of project.
Now you can do all this on your own, given sufficient incentive and will power. But most of us find team-work helpful, which is a chief reason for the popularity of the new Creative Thinking classes. The brainstorm technique, Mr. Osborn and his associates have found, works best when groups of five to 25 persons attack specific problems.
So let’s visit a typical class, an evening session at the University of Buffalo. Its 26 members range in age from 21 to 45, and most of them are taking the course for college credit. They include an automobile salesman, a golf pro, a baker, an accountant, four engineers, two secretaries, an insurance broker, a photostat operator, eight ad men, a receptionist, a florist, a loading checker, a hairdresser, a housewife, a printing shop manager, two department store buyers, a salesgirl and a bank teller.
The session starts with a ten-minute warm-up exercise. Tonight it’s writing alternative banner lines for the day’s newspaper. It might have been suggest- ing other titles for Cinderella or David Copperfield, listing inventions that have built up the automobile industry, or outlining a children’s story.
The working mood established, the class now tackles a specific problem: How would you make a living if you could never leave your home? Some of the answers: Start a service for department stores, working out plans for seasonal shifts and promotion ideas. Operate a phone answering service. Proof-read dictionaries, phone books, pocket novels, etc. Furnish scouting reports to football coaches from watching TV games. Write political speeches for local candidates. Install a gift bar. Think up profit-making hobby kits for other shut-ins. Make favors for parties. Make reservations for business men.
Sometimes a member of the class supplies a real problem. A carpenter in Chicago last year asked his classmates for ideas on how to go into business for himself. The brainstorm suggestion that most appealed to him was designing and building rumpus rooms. The class went further, pooling their ideas to compile an illustrated brochure for selling this specialized service. He now is his own boss, business is good, and you couldn’t find a more enthusiastic Osborn fan.
To prove the Osborn Theory, several tests are used. In one a class is divided into equal teams for creative and judicial thinking. A problem is stated and for ten minutes ideas are handled one by one, proposed by the creative section and criticized by the judicial. Then for another ten minutes the whole class suspends judgment and brainstorms. Every idea is written on the board, to be judged later. In a recent session only three proposals were made and analyzed in this first period, while 21 came out of the brainstorm.
“Maybe just one idea was really good,” Mr. Osborn points out. “But it might never have been born if creation had been hampered by judgment. When you turn on the hot and cold faucets together, you get tepid water.”
Another experiment tests individual vs. group thinking. Half of one class wrote down separately as many ideas as each could think of for using surplus typewriter ribbon spools. The other half brain-stormed. The idea total by individuals was 149, by the group 226.
In a brainstorm key questions keep ideas popping. “What else?” is the one that is asked over and over. To spark idea association the leader may ask, “What is next to this? What goes with it? What came before it? After? What is it larger than? Smaller? What is it like? Unlike? What are its component parts? What else could parts be used for? What could be added? Eliminated? What can we borrow or adapt to improve it? These questions have led to progress in every field. The first cook who added herbs or wine to a stew, or cheese to salad dressing was a creative thinker. So were the men and women who thought up balloon and tubeless tires, wider car seats, four-wheel brakes, dehydrated soup, soap flakes, folding umbrellas, one-lens goggles, sliced bread, cafeterias, cake mixes.
Mr. Osborn considers inventing a good mental exercise. He has patented three gadgets—a glass caster, a newspaper rack and a wire device used in store window displays—and sold the patents for an average of $400 each. Working out one of these shortened a dull wait between trains.
“If you do have an idea, don’t hesitate to give it a chance,” he says. “Amateur inventors still hit the jackpot now and then.
“A friend of mine called on his doctor the other day and found him musing over a new plastic tongue-depressor. It had a couple of angles in it, giving it an elongated S-shaped profile.
” ‘For 20 years,’ the doctor said, ‘we’ve been using these things straight, with our hands obstructing the view into patients’ throats. So along comes a man and puts in a simple, obvious twist to take my hand out of the picture. This probably is worth $50,000 to a pharmaceutical house.’ “You may be sure that the man who put the angles in that little spatula wasn’t a one-idea man, but a trained observer and a creative cogitator.
“The great and rewarding thing about ideas is that one leads to another, the stream broadens and the habit extends beyond those concentrating hours in the think-shop. Creative imagination can light our fives. God grant that it may relight our world!”