It can be very easy to view the process of ideation as linear, particularly in a professional context where you have a task to accomplish in a specific timeframe. You have an objective, you have a particular set of resources, you plan a solution that will get you there, and you see it to fruition. Job done, right? This is certainly practical and efficient, but it doesn’t necessarily leave room for adaptability or letting creative ideas evolve, two essential factors in discovering winning concepts.

Many ground-breaking ideas in the business, scientific, and artistic spheres have undergone evolutions from their initial concepts. Sometimes, this change is a natural part of the process. But sometimes, it’s a response to external pressures. And sometimes, it’s pure serendipity.

In all cases, it’s important to recognize the value of letting ideas (and the way you view them) evolve over time.

The Natural Evolution of Creative Ideas

Letting ideas morph and change is a natural part of the creative process. As you get started and sort through possibilities, parts of the brain are activated, establishing fresh connections and relationships between bits of information. Celebrated social psychologist Graham Wallas identified this crucial process as far back as the 1920s and dubbed it ‘Incubation’.

The worlds of science and technology provide many powerful examples of just how valuable these connections and associations can be. Many breakthroughs have occurred when someone realizes that they could apply the knowledge they’ve gained while investigating one thing elsewhere.

This evolution of the idea process was the case for John Hopps, the biomedical engineer who created the first external pacemaker in the 1950s. He was aiding another team who were deliberately inducing hypothermia to slow a heart down far enough that open-heart surgery could be safely performed. The problem was that they then couldn’t get the heart to contract once cooled. This problem led Hopps to think of using the regular application of electricity to pace the heart’s contractions for the procedure. He then realized that he could apply this concept in another context: to regulate the heartbeat of a conscious patient. This evolution of the initial idea led to the development of the first external pacemaker.

Natural evolution isn’t always so smooth. It can occur quite late in the process, perhaps even after you’ve already chosen a different approach and are hard at work on bringing it to fruition (what Graham Wallas called ‘Verification’).

The initial handwritten draft for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example, shows that at one point, one of the novel’s most important sequences involved overt themes of mysticism, faith, and martyrdom. Golding then revised the draft into a scathing portrayal of futility and savagery. This change had a profound impact on the overall effect of the novel.

lord of the flies ideas and changing

The existence of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is partly owed to a story called Stephen Hero. Many of the characters and events from ‘A Portrait’ appear as prototypes in this earlier work. Although, in the first work, they appear in a far more realistic way, lacking the eccentric style that is now the hallmark of Joyce’s fiction. While Joyce didn’t care for this early story (and what remained of it was only published after his death), it did allow him a chance to explore the elements of what would become his later masterpiece.

The Necessary Evolution of Ideas

Sometimes, breakthroughs don’t come from willingly allowing the process of idea evolution to happen in its own time. Instead, it often happens as a result of pressure from external factors. In fact, some of the most impressive evolutions in the business world have come from companies responding to economic and technological advances rather than going under.

A standout example from recent years is Netflix. Their initial concept was a game-changer for video rentals in the late 1990s. Rather than forcing people to go out to rent a DVD, they enabled subscribers to choose movies from the comfort of their own homes, which were mailed to them. As streaming technology advanced over the next decade, Netflix realized that its core business was in danger of being rendered obsolete.

By incorporating a fledgling streaming service into their offering in 2007, they changed the threat into a strength. Netflix used its existing loyal client base to establish itself as a leader in the emerging industry. They have undergone a further evolution over the last few years. They have shifted their focus to producing content rather than simply curating it, giving them a USP that is less dependent on third parties and more robust in the face of competition.

netflix dvd concept of letting ideas evolveThere are plenty of examples where the evolution of an idea wasn’t nearly so logical. Take Play-Doh, for instance. Developed in the 1930s, Play-Doh was originally marketed to remove coal soot stains from wallpaper. It waned in popularity as coal gave way to gas power and vinyl wallpaper became widespread after World War II. Faced with ruin, the creators scrambled for a way to reinvent the product. A teacher, who had used it in the classroom as craft material for Christmas decorations, persuaded the company to market it as a children’s toy in the mid-1950s. The rest, as they say, is history.

These examples prove the importance of thinking about the long-term life of an idea. By viewing a concept as fluid with potential for change, your ability to adapt to new opportunities (and setbacks) increases. It’s possible to do a certain amount of future-proofing simply by viewing a concept as mutable and keeping half an eye on the next possible stage of its existence.

wrigleys gum letting ideas evolveCoincidental Evolution of Creative Ideas

Some incredible things have developed as a result of luck, coincidence, or pure accident while people were focused on something else.

  • Penicillin – Most famous, perhaps, is the story of  Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin due to mold growing in one of his experiments.
  • Wrigleys chewing gumThe brand came about because William Wrigley realized the gum he was offering as a freebie was far more popular than the baking soda he was trying to sell.
  • Avon – When book salesman David McConnell realized the free perfume samples he offered were of far more interest to his clientele, Avon Cosmetics was born.
  • Slack – One of the more exciting examples from recent years is Slack. The team behind it never set out to create the leading communications tool. They constructed Slack to serve their own needs as a chat tool as they worked on a massively multiplayer online game. When the game, Glitch, failed due to various factors, the company looked for a way to keep at least some of their staff employed. They realized the tool they’d developed for themselves might be valuable for other teams as well, and the business has never looked back.
  • E.T. – Accidental evolution can just as easily apply to more artistic endeavors, too. Stephen Spielberg spent several years working on a concept for a movie called Night Skies, a thriller about hostile aliens laying siege to a human family’s farmhouse. Shortly before production began, he realized that he wanted to make a much gentler film. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison helped him see that he already had the perfect premise, thanks to a minor plot point he’d included in Night Skies. The script became E.T., one of his most popular projects.

Spielberg's E.T. ideas evolveBe Open to Letting Your Creative Ideas Evolve

Ideas can always surprise with how they change and expand if given the chance. While it’s still important to keep goals and objectives in sight, shifting the way you perceive the concepts that get you there could yield some incredible results. Seeing your ideas as mutable processes rather than concrete solutions to particular problems doesn’t simply enable you to think more creatively. It also helps you to adapt to changing circumstances and salvage more from perceived (near) failure.

You will also find that you’re more receptive to possibilities that might not be immediately obvious, which could, in turn, lead to breakthroughs or even smash hit blockbusters (well, one can dream…).

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