Book Review: A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

At first blush it is tempting to look at this book and ask, “How does this have any relevance for systems engineering?” After all, this little volume was first published in 1940 by an “ad man.” It’s 75 years old and predates the recognition of systems engineering as a separate discipline by decades. Arguably- it’s a tad out of date.

The author, who was born in 1886, became well-known in advertising circles serving as the first Chairman of the Ad Council. He was selected the Advertising Man of the Year in 1946. After his death in 1973 he was named to the Advertising Hall of Fame.

But what can an “ad man”- even such a distinguished one- possibly say to systems engineers 75 years after the fact? Young wrote several books. This one, targeted to the generation of creative ideas, is valuable food for thought for anyone engaged in the commerce of ideas. In it, Young sets out a clear path to the production of new ideas.

The book itself is short and clearly written. It is easily read in an evening. Young’s ideas are presented in a way that is practical and accessible. Any creative problem solver will profit by reading and digesting its contents.

Young begins with the proposition that idea generation is a process that can be learned and repeated. He likens it to automobile production. He argues that it is so simple that many people reject it as too simple. Others fail to practice its discipline. That makes it rare in practice and worth the effort to explain it.

Drawing on the work of the Italian engineer, economist, and philosopher Vilfredo Pareto, the author describes two types of people, rentiers and speculators. The rentiers (stockholders) are content to preserve and repeat their social and business processes. But the speculators are “preoccupied” with refining and changing their world. They constantly tinker with their environment, refining and reconstructing it. It is there that Young encounters the advertisers to whom he writes. Most of us, however, would see engineers in that type. After all, who else but the quintessential tinkerers of the world would rush to be among the speculators.

According to Young, it is the speculators who have the capacity for ideas. This he traces to their constant search for ways to recombine the various aspects of their world. Ideas are for Young (as for Pareto) simply new combinations of old or existing elements. Their power lies in the new relationships created by the recombinations.

While Young is an “ad man,” this talk of power in relationships creating results beyond the simple summation of the elements alerts us to the presence of systems. He is treating ideas as systems of the elements combined in various ways until the power of creativity emerges from them. At the outset Young is signaling to us that creating ideas is akin to creating systems. To quote the writer of Matthew’s gospel, “Let him who has ears hear.”

The ability to create and capitalize on the new combinations rests on the speculators’ capacity to “see” and understand the relationships. This is the essence of systems engineering. The power of the system is in the synergy created by the relationships and the work of the engineer is in crafting those relationships. Systems engineers are ideally positioned to take advantage of this power.

If the end result of Young’s process is analogous to the systems engineer’s work then his process for getting there should hold some valuable lessons for the engineer. Looking at the process yields fruit in the very first step.

Young would have the seeker of ideas begin with what he calls gathering the raw materials for the mental processes. He divides the gathering of information into specific information about the problem at hand and more general information about the world. For Young’s purposes these two undertakings focus on information about the product or service being advertised coupled with information about the world in which the advertisement will function. But it is easy to translate this to the systems engineering setting.

Engineers are trained to gather the “specific” information in this step. Understanding the problem is an essential skill in the engineering process. There is no surprise in the importance that Young places on this process. Russell Ackoff’s warning, “We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem” targets the importance of gathering the specific information just as Young recommends.

But it is the second gathering that is more often neglected. In describing it Young commends an ongoing exercise of our curiosity at a level which results in a real understanding of the contextual world. The broader the understanding the greater the possibilities for recombination. This fits with Ackoff’s view of the systems process. He posited, “The more of the context of a problem that a scientist can comprehend, the greater are his chances of finding a truly adequate solution.” Young ties the quest for that kind of understanding to the expansion of the pool of possible relationships available.

This is the novel insight he opens for the systems engineering practitioner. Most systems engineers would focus this gathering on the directly relevant context around the problem. Young recommends something more. Likening the fund of general knowledge to a kaleidoscope, Young points out that just as the number of patterns possible for the kaleidoscope is a function of the number of glass pieces it contains, the possible combinations are a function of the number of information points contained in the problem solver’s store of knowledge. It is critical that the systems engineer be a generalist- and a curious one at that.

Young goes on to lay out four more steps in his process- ruminating on the information, laying the thought process aside, recognizing the ideas that will inevitably come unbidden to your consciousness and verifying those ideas against reality. These steps and his explication of them are valuable and well worth the read. But the major insights are that ideas (read “design solutions”) are the result of new and novel combinations of existing elements and that a broad general grasp of the world provides the food for making those combinations. These are the powerful concepts for the systems engineer- and for every other creative.

This book may be short, out-of-date and come from a world apart from engineering but it is powerful nonetheless. Every systems engineer should read it and heed its advice.

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