It’s a word we use all the time, but when it comes to defining it concisely, it’s not so easy.
Here’s the definition I prefer, mostly because there are some key insights inside it.
An idea is a single solution, plan or option which might solve a specific problem or fulfill a need.
Let’s break this down.
1. Problem or Need
The problem is the reason why we create ideas. By definition (while we’re on the subject), a problem is something that’s in the way of your goal. We create ideas to solve problems, which is why creativity and problem solving are often the same thing. A good idea solves the problem or fulfils a need or a want (which are variations of a problem.) If the idea doesn’t do either, that’s a good definition of a bad idea. (See below.)
2. Single Solution
An idea is a single solution – not right or wrong, not good or bad. For everyday creative problem solving – for example, How do I pick up the kids but also get home in time to finish the project for a client? – one idea may be all you need to decide it’s the right solution. But it’s important to remember you need to begin with one. It’s one option, and every problem always has more than one solution. This is particularly important when you have a complex problem. The best way to solve complexity is to have several alternatives. With lots of options, you get perspective. You can compare ideas against each other. In creative philosophy, the word is frequency. That’s a fancy way of saying you need a lot of ideas. (See my post The 90-10 Rule for information on this important principle.)
The more precise and articulate you are about what you want to accomplish – either getting rid of a problem or satisfying a need – the more likely your idea will do exactly that. Vague objectives or problem statements lead to less usable ideas because the ideas don’t help you achieve your goal or get rid of the problem. (Again, see The 90-10 Rule.)
Also … remember that an idea is the only true demonstration of creativity. Personality and behaviour may signal creativity generally, but true creativity boils down to one’s ability to create a lot of ideas.
But wait! What about Bad Ideas?
Believe it or not, bad ideas can have considerable value. A bad idea might not solve this problem, but it might solve another problem. Or, just as likely, a bad idea can often lead to a good idea if you improve whatever aspect of the idea that doesn’t work. Or, a bad idea might make you think of another, better idea.
What definitions do you use to define an idea?