Where do good ideas come from?

A PhD thesis or dissertation is supposed to make a “significant and original contribution to knowledge”. This can create a lot of angst amongst research students, partly because originality is often defined, but rarely talked about in actionable ways.

In “How to get a PhD”, Phillips and Pugh set out 16 ways to be original (page 62 of the current edition if you are interested), but don’t say anything at all about how to come up with the original ideas in the first place.

Similarly “Doctorates Downunder” has chapters full of useful suggestions for managing your time and enriching your study experience which may increase your chances of finishing your doctorate, they do not really help you become original.

Don’t get me wrong – it is good to know what originality means in relation to doing a PhD, but it’s far better to know what you have to do to produce enough original and novel ideas to fill a thesis.

The reason why so many books avoid this topic, perhaps rightly so, is that creativity is assumed to be a disciplinary issue or an individual matter. Either you know enough about your subject to see the way to produce novel ideas, or you are naturally a creative person who will come up with them anyway.

But is this really the case? Are there actions you can take that can help you come up with more ideas and solutions to research problems – regardless of discipline?

You may have figured out by now that I have a fascination with the issue of creativity in research – how it happens, how to promote it and how to think about it. This is why I enjoyed reading a paper which attempts to measure social interconnectedness and the relationship with ideas generation called “Social origins of good ideas” by Ronald Burt (2003) – recommended on the twitterverse by @hrheingold.

Burt explored the production and uptake of good ideas in a supply chain logistics company by exploring the nature of discussion networks amongst managers. He found that the network in the company was characterised by a ‘bridge and cluster’ formation. Most people discussed ideas with their immediate work colleagues (within clusters) but relatively few people would act as ‘bridgers’ and talk to colleagues across clusters.

Managers who had a diverse social network, ie: those who ‘bridged’ between clusters of smaller discussion networks, were “at risk of having more good ideas”. He supports this argument by a whole bunch of numbers which seem pretty convincing to me.

Now I could probably drive a truck through this method on the grounds that he doesn’t really into account the influence of materiality, such as physical objects and locations, and how they give shape to relations between people. You might question how generalisable this knowledge is, given that a logistics company is bound to have some unique constraints. But I think the findings are interesting none the less.

The hypothesis which lies behind this work is that, within a discussion cluster, information, beliefs and behaviours tend to become more homogenous over time. This is certainly a phenomena one sees if they work for any period of time in the same office or live in a family group!

Burt’s key argument is that ‘bridgers’ discuss ideas with a wide range of people, not just the ones closest to hand. As a consequence they are more likely to be exposed to contradictory ideas and alternative practices. If these bridgers are astute and thoughtful, they can see ways to transfer or combine ideas and approaches from elsewhere to their own problems.

In effect, Burt claims, “Creativity is an import export business”. A mundane idea in one area can be a spectacular one in another because the value of the idea is determined by the recipient of the idea – not the originator. Burt argues that: “the certain path to being creative is to find a  constituency more ignorant than yourself” (pg 5) and notes that this is a common tactic in academia (!)

Here’s where it gets interesting for people doing a PhD. Think about it for a moment: what do you spend most of your time on while doing your PhD? Probably doing experiments, making stuff  (or whatever it is you do) and/or reading the work of others. Hopefully you will also be hanging out with your peers and talking to your supervisors.

These are good ways of generating ideas – but is it all you could be doing? One thing administrators and academics in my university constantly complain about is that it’s hard to convince PhD students to attend lunchtime seminars put on by other researchers.

When I was doing my PhD it always seemed like a waste of time to break my flow and attend such events unless I knew the person who was presenting, or the topic of the seminar seemed especially relevant. I always assumed that the discussion was unlikely to have any direct relevance  – but what about indirect relevance? Might I have missed out on many opportunities to cross breed exciting new idea hybrids?

So I will finish with some questions for us to ponder. How can you create an ideas ‘import export’ business? How much time do you spend in discussion about ideas with others? Who are they? Do you need to find more people who will expose you to different ways of thinking and doing? Since no one likes a free loader, what might people in these other areas learn from you?

5 thoughts on “Where do good ideas come from?

  1. Pingback: Is your PhD a monster? | The Thesis Whisperer

  2. A very interesting and though provocative post. Learning can either be supervised or un-supervised. In the former case, one reads, discusses and then ponders tries to find a gap where it can fit its ideas. While in the latter case, one already has an idea which is gained from experience (but once again, i wonder would gaining experience not count as supervised learning?) and builds upon it.

  3. This fits very nicely with what a presenter at a workshop about getting grants said once. He suggested that new ideas often come from applying ideas from one field to a new field. It’s not that the ideas are necessarily all the novel, just that they hadn’t been applied in that particular field before. I always felt that was an argument for more cross-disciplinary teams, classes, etc. We don’t do a good job of providing an environment for this cross-fertilization to occur.

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