An heuristic is a comparative process that emerges an approximate solution, not guaranteed to be perfect.
Creativity can’t be manufactured using a procedural (step-by-step) approach. Otherwise, everyone could have brilliant new business ideas on-demand by following a set of instructions.
Any problem that cannot be solved procedurally is a good candidate for an heuristic approach.
You’ll need a pen and paper (or excel spreadsheet) handy.
Semantic similarity is a metric, similar to the concept of distance, that measures the likeness of terms or concepts.
Humans come with a built-in sense of semantic distance. We intuitively know that the term dog is pretty close in meaning to the term wolf. Closer than, say, dog and Higgs Boson.
What’s not immediately obvious is that creativity is dependent on the concept of semantic similarity. What we perceive as creative, new, innovative ideas is in fact a novel association between two semantically similar concepts.
Put more simply.
The building block of creativity is association.
What we need in order to be creative is access to lots of semantically similar (and distant) concepts that our brain can use to generate new associations.
Traditional Business Ideation
If you’re like me you’ve probably tried to sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and come up with a great business idea.
The reason it’s so hard is that you’re trying to force your brain to be creative without giving it anything to associate.
The next step is to go online and search for things like:
small business ideas
side hustle ideas
While most of Google’s results are fairly generic and similar there are usually a few decent concepts and ideas for new business startups milling around.
Here are a few I gathered and listed:
Browsing lists of business ideas is a step in the right direction. At least your brain is being fed potentially new concepts to associate.
This is where most people get stuck!
Fortunately, there’s another step you can take to make the ideas more relevant to you personally (i.e. within your means & budget to start, within your skillset & experience, etc) and more innovative and creative at the same time.
Personalized Heuristic Ideation
We can use an heuristic process to provide all the concepts and associations our brains need to think out the box while anchoring the ideas we generate to our own personal likes and interests to make them more relevant.
Step 1: Build an Anchor List
This is exactly the same concept we are going to build in to our heuristic business idea generator because we want it to be bias (or personalized) toward ourselves.
Create a big list of all the things you:
- love doing
- hate doing
- are happy doing
- get mad at
- are good at
- suck at
- would like to do
- would like to know
- are skilled at
- have experience in
- know about
- are interested in
- would love to learn
Do a thorough job. Try end up with 100 or more items in the anchor list.
Step 2: Build a Business Ideas List
How you create this list is up to you.
Search Google for ideas. Collate or jot down ideas you already found that were intriguing. Use existing business ideas lists.
Here are a few big lists of interesting small business ideas:
However you do it. List about 100 concepts/ideas you find clever, innovative, or in some way interesting.
Step 3: Merge The Lists
Merging the lists is not a one-to-one operation.
Instead, each of the 100 concepts from the business ideas list must be merged with each concept in the anchor list.
Here’s an example.
My lists have two anchor concepts and 3 business idea concepts. As follows,
- Anchor Concept 1
- Anchor Concept 2
Business Ideas List
- Business Idea 1
- Business Idea 2
- Business Idea 3
Merging these gives me the following.
- Anchor Concept 1 & Business Idea 1
- Anchor Concept 1 & Business Idea 2
- Anchor Concept 1 & Business Idea 3
- Anchor Concept 2 & Business Idea 1
- Anchor Concept 2 & Business Idea 2
- Anchor Concept 2 & Business Idea 3
Notice that total number of merged concepts is equal the number of anchor list concepts multiplied by the business idea concepts. For this example,
2 x 3 = 6
These numbers grow very quickly. By the time you have an anchor list of 100 and a business ideas list of 100 there are,
100 x 100 = 10 000
potentially new business ideas.
Step 4: Generate Creative Associations
Here’s where your brain has its turn to be creative. Due to arbitrary nature of the way in which concepts have been smushed together during the merging process there are pairs of concepts that are semantically similar and others that are distant.
This diversity and variation is exactly what we want. It will encourage the brain to come up with creative associations between concept pairs.
Here’s an example.
Pretend I listed solar power as something I am interested in. One of the ideas I found and added to my list was outdoor carpark shade installation company.
The merged concepts look like this:
Solar power outdoor carpark shade installation company
There are a number of ways you can interpret this (which is the beauty of this strategy because it is open to interpretation and creative perspectives).
Here are two I came up with.
Solar Parking for Malls
Instead of using standard shade netting, approach malls and offer to shade their carparks with solar panels and pay you back over time with revenue they earn from the power generated. This makes the mall energy independent. Gives them a secondary income stream from selling power back into the grid, or to customers driving electric vehicles. Etc.
Solar Parking Mass Transit
Create a large solar shaded carpark on the edge of town. Operate a fleet of electric buses that are powered from the solar shade to take people to and from work. Generate revenue from monthly parking & transport memberships. This helps commuters save money on expensive parking in the city. Reduces congestion on the roads. Saves burning fossil fuels. Etc.
Not every combination of merged concepts will lead to something useful. Some combinations will be too semantically similar (or possibly identical) with no association to be made. Others will be too semantically distance to have a meaningful association.
Don’t discard concepts that seem far apart at first glance.
The most creative ideas will often arise between the least obvious or least connected (semantically distant) concepts.
The sheer number of associations you can quickly and easily generate using this strategy virtually guarantees you will find unique angles that would not have occurred otherwise.
You only have to find one.
Sure beats the heck out of sitting around in front of a blank piece of paper trying to come up with a game changing startup idea.
This heuristic strategy for ideas doesn’t only apply to businesses. It can be used for virtually any creative idea type problem.