Ideas Graphic

What is different about people who have lots of good ideas?

by Matthew Leitch, 10 March 2003

Some people have vastly more good ideas than others

Just how many more ideas? Select people at random from the intelligent, well educated people near the top of any organization and put them into a team. Get them to work on a difficult problem that requires good ideas to solve it. The chances are that they will make less progress than a single individual whose psychological make up and behaviour have made them powerful generators of good ideas.

What is different about these people that makes them so good at generating ideas? Are they, as some psychologists have theorised, ‘divergent’ thinkers, creatives, in touch with their subconscious, able to throw off the shackles of functional fixedness and think laterally ‘out of the box’?

I don't think so. I have lots of good ideas and that profile does not fit me, or the famous ideas men and women that are my heroes. People like Barnes Wallis (inventor of the famous Dambuster bouncing bomb), Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Amory Lovins, and Sir Norman Foster.

This web page looks at the true basis of ‘creative’ problem solving and design, and how some people become astoundingly good at it through their lifelong focus on certain behaviours.

What is a good idea?

Really good ideas have three distinctive qualities:

By contrast, the ideas that usually come out of brainstorming sessions and corporate ‘off sites’ aimed at generating ideas for improvement are almost always stale, half-baked, and later turn out to give no advantage.

Seymour Powell: ‘Better by Design’

Top design talent is rarely seen at work in public, but in the 1990s British television gave us a rare insight into how it operates. ‘Better by Design’ was a TV series on the UK's Channel 4 in which top product designers, Richard Seymour and Dick Powell (, took on a series of design challenges. In each programme they tried to design a better alternative to a familiar object e.g. a razor, a bin, a toilet, an electric car, a shopping trolley, and so on. Millions watched as Richard and Dick demonstrated their awesome abilities.

Their approach was the same for every design challenge. They began by studying existing designs and thought about things that were awkward or otherwise unsatisfactory about them – out of control shopping trollies, messy shaving foams, hard to clean toilets, and so on. They discussed existing designs with users and other experts in the relevant industry. They looked for fresh thinking by others, such as Japanese toilets (some of which have electronic devices such as music to hide the sound of flushing). Through this early work a number of promising ideas would emerge – often the ideas came from Richard or Dick, but not always. The boys went off to their studio to do sketches before producing full drawings and commissioning models.

The format of the programme was that a manufacturing company was involved and would actually manufacture the product once designed. Often, Richard and Dick would hand over a partly finished design to the company's research and development people for detailed work on manufacturing techniques or to optimise mechanical details. Often these people would work for a while then return to our heroes saying it couldn't be done and that the idea was a failure. Every time, Richard and Dick would take up the problem themselves and solve it, despite their lack of research facilities.

Richard and Dick's designs looked great as well as performing well. Even their casual sketches seemed to have a grace and style that many finished designs from lesser mortals lack. They took care over finishes and every detail reflected their talent.

There's no doubt that they have the ability to generate a lot of good ideas. Original, functionally better, and finely worked out in detail.

How did they get that way? Indeed, how does anyone develop that kind of talent?

The six keys to good ideas

There are six keys to the ability to generate a lot of good ideas.

  1. Critical thinking: Great ideas people rely on logical, critical thinking to reach original and superior conclusions. They do not brainstorm hundreds of wacky ideas in fun-filled jamming sessions. They are extremely good at seeing what is wrong with existing thinking. They spot reasoning errors quickly and use logic to deduce conclusions that nobody else has reached before. They have confidence in their reasoning and are not frightened by the possibility that nobody else in the world agrees with them. That is something they are familiar with. They usually have more than one reason for their conclusions, which provides more confidence.

    By making deductions about the design they are seeking they create a narrower design problem for themselves that is different from the problem others have tried to solve.

    The very logical and systematic basis of originality is the opposite of the free wheeling, intuitive creativity often imagined. One reason for this may be that patent laws say only an idea that is more original than a logical application of existing technology can be patented. For this reason, the deductions that lead to original ideas are normally kept secret.

  2. Careful analysis of many factors affecting the design: Critical thinking is one part of a very analytical and energetic analysis of the problem and other constraints on its solution. Good ideas people make more effort than most people and are good at deducing things about the ultimate solution from the things they observe.

  3. Collecting solutions: Great ideas people take many years to develop. During this period, through persistent learning and attempts to design original and important solutions, they acquire a vast repertoire of solutions and part-solutions, ready for applications to new problems. For example, Leonardo da Vinci's wide ranging scientific studies provided ideas for his inventions. His glider, for example, was based on detailed analyses of bird flight and bird wings.

    This stockpile of solutions also allows an ideas dynamo to solve subsidiary problems quickly and well.

  4. Reading and learning from like-minded people: Ideas people do not like textbooks, but they do like books and articles by people who, like them, use critical thinking to reason their way to good, new ideas. They like to rely on people whose ideas have created a revolution. For example, a marketing person might read books by David Ogilvy (the maverick who challenged advertisers to use research and stick to selling products instead of winning art awards), Ries and Trout (whose book ‘Bottom up marketing’ turned corporate strategy on its head), and Neil Rackham (the psychologist who proved that closing techniques reduce sales effectiveness for major sales). This is the sort of education that produces good ideas.

  5. Persistence in searching for solutions: Strong ideas people know that they have a good chance of success and so they keep at it. Hours, days, weeks, even years may go by as they try alternative approaches to satisfying the design brief they have deduced.

  6. Testing and learning: Great ideas people have the humility to know that trying something new rarely brings first-time success. Testing and problem solving is usually needed so they try out their ideas and put in the effort needed to make them work properly.

There's no getting away from the fact that all this takes brain power – the more the better. However, very intelligent people who do not practise the appropriate behaviours will be out-performed by others with less intelligence but who have cultivated their ability to generate ideas.

Good ideas people are more common in disciplines that teach the appropriate behaviours, such as architecture, design engineering, and product design. They are much less common in fields where compliance with generally accepted ideas is the over-riding requirement, such as in audit and accountancy.

The extraordinary Barnes Wallis

The six keys can be seen at work in the lives of famous ideas people.

Barnes Wallis is famous for being the engineer who designed the bouncing bomb used in the Dambuster raid in World War II. His bomb bounced across the water of a reservoir, hit the dam wall, sank under water, and then exploded, breaking the dam wall.

Until the background is explained, the bouncing bomb seems like a wacky idea that must have come out of the blue, perhaps arriving in a dream. The true story is very different.

Long before the bouncing bomb, Wallis had been thinking about modern war and realized the importance of destroying a country's ability to fight. That meant destroying large industrial assets and heavy infrastructure like bridges and dams. He performed calculations to estimate the explosive power needed to destroy such assets and calculated how much explosive would be needed. It was too much for the aircraft available at that time. He discovered that a bomb exploded underground could do more damage and realized that getting a bomb underground might be possible if the bomb was dropped from high up and was extremely streamlined. These ‘earthquake’ bombs might drop at high speed and bury themselves deep in the ground before exploding.

Faced with the problem of destroying the dams he discovered that it was very difficult to drop the bombs close enough to do adequate damage with the weight of explosives that could be carried on the bombers available. However, again applying the principle that what was around the explosion affected its destructiveness he found that exploding the bomb right next to the dam wall made it far more effective.

Getting it there was the problem. Bombs dropped from above could not get close enough. If a bomb came from the side and struck the side of the dam that would do it, but torpedo nets had been stretched across under the water to stop this kind of attack. The only way left was to go over the nets, and that's where bouncing came in. Most people know you can skim a stone across water. Wallis may also have known that cannon balls fired across water had been seen to bounce and this had been used deliberately by Lord Nelson.

Getting the bomb to work took a lot of testing and mathematics. Wallis produced many designs for the casing and the rig used to carry and drop the bombs.

After the Dambusters raid Wallis returned to his earthquake bomb idea and his Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs were highly effective once bomb aiming problems had been solved. They were able to destroy concrete protected submarine pens.

Another of Wallis's great designs was the Wellington bomber. This was the most numerous bomber used by the RAF in World War II and was famous for its ruggedness. It was said that a Wellington would keep on flying until all the fuselage had burned off. The secret of its toughness was its unique geodesic frame – a metal lattice rolled into the shape of the aeroplane.

Again, this was not an idea from ‘outside of the box’. Wallis had extensive experience of geodesic construction from his time desiging airships. Wallis designed the R100 airship using this kind of structure. (The R100 was a safe and successful design but its commercial impact was destroyed by its rival, the inferior R101, which crashed and burned.) Geodesic structures were in Wallis's stockpile of ready-made solutions.

Wallis is also credited by some with inspiring the swing wing designs of some modern war planes. This may be true, but Wallis's idea for a swing wing aircraft was very different from the designs actually produced by others. Wallis noted that the tail of a conventional aeroplane was inefficient. It was necessary for steering and stability but it produced drag. He deduced that an aeroplane without a tailplane might be more efficient and tried to design one. He had two ideas he thought would help. Firstly, he wanted to make the body itself part of the lifting surface. The bulkier body shape this produced may have been inspired partly by his experience with airships. Secondly, swing wings would allow the aeroplane to be more stable across a variety of speeds. Wings forward for low speed take off and landing, but wings back for high speed flight. His designs and models had no tails.

Thomas Edison's ideas factory

Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – 1931) patented over 1,000 different inventions, created a laboratory around him, and founded General Electric. He demonstrated the power of persistence. He failed thousands of times to convert electricity into light before finally succeeding. Edison said ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99% perspiration.’

His life also demonstrates the power of building a stockpile of solutions and part-solutions. You can imagine that after 100 or so inventions an enthusiastic person will have developed quite a repertoire of solution fragments ready to be combined in new ways to meet new needs. Edison started early. At the age of 4 he developed a habit of asking how things worked.

Edison also shows the power of reading the works of other revolutionary thinkers. He read books by great scientists and others, including Newton's ‘Principia’. He was a critical reader, however. He did not like the language and style of ‘Principia’. He also preferred to verify things by his own objective experiments.

There is a website dedicated to Edison that gives much detail of his life and inventions. Many clues to his approach can be found, especially in the story of his work with electric power systems.

The bad side of good ideas

This kind of thinking is not for everyone. Putting forward original, better ideas provokes unpopularity and resistance from those whose ideas have been bettered. Controversy and criticism are almost inevitable.

In ‘Better by Design’, Richard and Dick frequently met resistance to their ideas from the client companies. People said their ideas were too radical, or that they didn't understand the market, or had overlooked manufacturing difficulties, or that customers wouldn't want them, and so on. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that unresolved issues that Richard and Dick confidently expect to resolve later can seem like show-stoppers to other people.

Similarly, Barnes Wallis battled against ministerial scepticism for a long time before his bouncing bomb was accepted. This was despite the fact that he already had an outstanding track record, being the designer of the Wellington bomber. Eventually, Winston Churchill (himself familiar with controversy) learned of the idea and things started to move very quickly.


The ability to generate a large number of good ideas is the result of persistent practice of specific behaviours. If started from childhood these behaviours can produce people with extreme abilities.

Such people are good at critical analysis and rely on rational deduction, vast knowledge, and experiment rather than brainstorming and chemical aids for their originality.

About the author: Matthew Leitch has been studying the applied psychology of learning and memory since about 1979 and holds a BSc in psychology from University College London.

© 2003 Matthew Leitch