By Dr. Alex Bruton

If you’re reading this it’s because we (you) are going to do a fair amount of ideastorming – together in our upcoming ‘Basic Training’ module, individually as you build your skills here, and in groups as you go deeper on this journey later. This topic is meant to share a little bit more about the concept to get you started.

Let’s Start with the Coffitivity Story

A context. A stimulus. A personal experience. A connection. The idea. Some negative feedback. Persistence. A prototype website. And boom: 47,000 views on their second day followed by a bunch of press and what has turned out to be a very real business.

Not too long ago I stumbled across a pretty cool business called Coffitivity. I’m sharing it here as an introduction to this piece on personal ideastorming because it’s based on an incredibly simple idea and, especially, because of the story about how its founders came up with that idea.

You can pop over and read the story here (under the entry for April 19 2013) and you can listen to an interview with its founder here. But basically, what happened is that two guys named Justin Kauszler and Austin (Ace) Callwood from Central Virginia were employees at Virginia Commonwealth University. And in the process of doing their work they’d stumbled come across and read a research paper that had concluded that the level of noise found in a coffee shop was at just the right level to encourage creative thinking. More noise was less conducive and less noise was less conducive. Coffee shop noise landed in the sweet spot, it seemed. (You can find the original paper here.)

“Pretty cool,” they thought.

And then they forgot about the research paper. Or filed it away in the back of their minds somewhere anyway.

For a while, that is, until something happened that caused Kauszler to make a connection. You see, before Coffitivity they had another startup company on the go and had been working on it in a local coffee shop for a whole week, eight hours a day. No problem. Apparently making for a super productive week. But Kauszler describes returning to the quiet of his office the next week and struggling to be as productive. And how that was when the research paper about coffee shop noise came back to him. He concluded that the coffee shop noise had made them more productive and he decided to develop a way of streaming coffee shop noises over the web – to help everyone be more productive.

As Kauszler says in the above-linked interview, today Coffitivity is “a small application to actually enhance creativity, and it’s focused around scientific research that says a type of ambient noise – in this case a coffee shop – is conducive to creative cognition. So … by listening you are actually more creative.”

In short: they and their team have created a website to play coffee sounds even if you’re not in a coffee shop. With the promise of making you more creative and productive.

Not all business ideas are implemented as easily as their initial concept. That’s not my point (and I don’t mean to diminish their work). Rather, I’m sharing all this in order to highlight the way in which the idea came about for these two guys: A context. A stimulus. A personal experience. A connection. The idea. Some negative feedback. Persistence. A prototype website. And boom: 47,000 views on their second day followed by a bunch of press and what has turned out to be a real business.

Personal ideastorming

Coming up with ideas isn’t a matter of magic, or luck, or even genetics on the part of the people who do it. Rather, coming up with good ideas is something you can learn to do. And personal ideastorming is part of the equation. In fact, it’s a great place to start because while it can be very fruitful it can also help to identify some of the pitfalls associated with how we normally come up with ideas.

The Coffitivity story is a great one with some good lessons. But my interest is in how you can make this happen for yourself. Is it possible to do certain things and adopt certain practices that increase the chances of those connections happening and resulting in ideas that in turn lead to significant opportunities? And what are those things?

Coming up with ideas isn’t a matter of magic, or luck, or even genetics on the part of the people who do. Rather, coming up with good ideas is something you can learn to do. And personal ideastorming is part of the equation. In fact, it’s a great place to start because while it can be very fruitful it can also help to identify some of the pitfalls associated with how we normally come up with ideas.

We’ve all heard of brainstorming which dates back to 1953 and can be defined as follows:

Brainstorming is a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group; also: the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem.” – Merriam-Webster

As this definition suggests, brainstorming is about coming up with solutions to problems.

Ideastorming is a little different from brainstorming because it doesn’t just involve finding solutions. It also involves finding problems. In a new venture context I like to think of ideastorming as a way of coming up with both problems (that at least one person has) and solutions (that you might be able to offer) in such a way as to yield an opportunity. My definition is as follows:

Ideastorming is an early-stage search technique carried out individually or in groups in order to simultaneously discover problems and imagine potential solutions, pairs of which have the potential to create value and meet opportunities for a specific customer or beneficiary.” – Alex Bruton

If you think back to the Coffitivity example, this is exactly what Kauszler described in his interview as being the “perfect storm”. He came across a problem (his dip in productivity upon returning to work) and he was able to match it with an imagined potential solution (streaming the ambient noise of a coffee shop) in such a way that he did go on to create value for others and, clearly in hindsight, was able to meet an opportunity.

Not to say that ideastorming isn’t a powerful activity if carried out in groups, but how can you do it for yourself?

That’s what I’m after you learning. In class we’re going to look beyond ambient noise at a little bit more of the science behind what might help motivate creativity. And in the next lesson you’re going to take a stab at some personal ideastorming.

Thanks for reading. Have fun!