What's an idea?

And how do you decide amid all the creative thinking exercises you might be using, what determines when you have an idea as opposed to something else that doesn't really qualify as an idea?

These strategic thinking questions were a sub-theme of a Twitter conversation about "ideas" and the most effective ways creative thinking can generate the greatest number of ideas in a certain period of time.

In an in-person conversation shortly afterward, the same types of strategic thinking questions were applied to product name possibilities.

I was showing someone the output from an online collaboration focused on generating product name ideas. The group generated seven hundred of what I characterized as "names." The other party said what we produced weren't really product names. He acknowledged there were some product names on the list, but he said many of them were merely suggestions of what names could be.

See how muddied and confusing the terminology used in and around creative thinking can be?


Back to the Strategic Thinking Questions about Ideas

So what is an idea? Or what is a product name?

The two separate conversations prompted me to speculate that in a group setting employing strategic thinking and creative thinking exercises, an idea is best classified as a TPU.

What's a TPU?

It's an acronym for a "Tangible Participation Unit."

When you're leading creative thinking exercises with a group to generate what most people would readily call "ideas," a TPU suggests a participating group member has made a noticeable contribution to the creative thinking the group is doing.

If you're in a group coming up with ideas, you may have all kinds of beneficial thoughts racing around in your head. If there's no TPU in the form of something said, written, typed, drawn, acted out, etc., however, no one really has a sense that you have any ideas.

The one exception might be if you make that contorted idea face some quiet thinkers make when it's clear they are thinking something but just aren't saying it. That face SUGGESTS someone has an idea on the brain, but it simply hasn’t reached the mouth or hand in order to become tangible.

But even that "idea face" doesn't substitute for a TPU.

To be a TPU, the remnants of the creative thinking have to be tangible, providing clear evidence to others you are participating.

What do you think?

I haven’t taken my thinking on this topic much beyond what you see here. What do you think? Do you have a solid definition of an idea that you use or have borrowed from literature on the topic? If so, how do you define an idea? - Mike Brown


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