How to get one good idea: Start with 1,000

May 30 2014

“No idea is a bad idea.” “Don’t worry about feasibility right now.” “We should at least talk about it.”

It seems like I’ve heard these phrases nonstop for the past week. We’ve been brainstorming ideas that could solve the problems we will try to tackle in the lab this summer, and it has taught me that the best way to tackle a complicated problem isn’t always simply to follow my gut.

We began our summer with one day focused mostly on orientation and logistics. On day two, WTVD, also known as ABC-11, presented us with our first problem. Our goal is to find a way for the TV station to strengthen their role in the community.

Professor Ryan Thornburg presented the second problem to us. This topic is broader, but boils down to us finding a way to use public records to improve journalism in North Carolina.

While these two problems are obviously quite different, the way we are approaching them at this early point is quite similar. Sometime next week, we will divide into two groups of four, each group handling one specific problem. But for now, all eight of us are working as one cohesive group to generate the best ideas we can build off of in coming weeks.

We began the process by generating a huge number of ideas. John gave us the lofty goal of a thousand ideas. I don’t know if we hit that goal, but certainly generated more ideas than I could practically count. Most of these ideas were born in the corner of the lab, where we would take turns being the person who writes ideas from the rest of the group down on a large sheet of white paper. We threw out anything that seemed to have a modicum of potential; we discussed topics ranging from mugshots to digital trees to astronomy.

This phase also provides wallpaper for the lab; each time we filled a sheet with ideas, we stuck it on the wall where it stay for the rest of the summer, serving as both a reminder of how we started out and as a source of inspiration for the stuck or overwhelmed intern. The back wall is well on its way to being completely covered.

We have now entered the second phase of brainstorming, where we refine our list of ideas. It’s nearly possible for one person to quickly determine which ideas are the best, so we went through a lengthy process of discussion and voting. We’ve narrowed our focus significantly, but still have a long way to go. By the end of next week, I can expect to be in a group working on developing a specific idea so that I can finally explain to my parents exactly the kind of work I will be doing this summer.

This process has taught me the value of an open mind. It’s taught me to carefully explore an idea before dismissing it as “bad,” even if I instinctively want to at first. It’s also reinforced the value of listening to input from others. Many of our better ideas were born from one person piggybacking on others’ ideas.

I’ve also learned the value of open communication with my coworkers. Over the past week, I’ve made lots of new friends. I’ve benefited a lot from walking over to coworkers at their computers and just talking with them about our research. A collaboration of multiple opinions and perspectives is always superior to the thoughts of a single person.

I’m excited to see where the process takes us next. No matter what idea we select, this summer is going to be busy.

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