Over the 15 years that ThinkShop, the consulting firm where I am a founding partner, has consulted with individuals and organizations, we’ve experimented with many ways to create and bring to market great ideas. We’ve summed up our experience in the Free Thinking Method, specific practices shared by the most creative organizations and people we know.
Sing Kumbaya at the beginning of every team meeting? Not on the list. Generate many absurd ideas using a constant fresh stream of inspiration? You’ll find that here. Work on one step per week. Before you know it, you’ll be living in an environment where ideas flow freely all the way to the marketplace.
Open your mind: Consider your first reaction when faced with a new idea. You might admit that you frequently feel compelled to analyze and criticize new things. For tiny seedlings of ideas to grow to become big innovations, we must open our minds and defer judgment.
Here’s how: remind yourself that idea generation and idea evaluation are different, equally important modes of thinking, and that you’ll work most effectively using one mode at a time. When you’re generating ideas, suspend your disbelief and say yes to everything. When you’re evaluating ideas, first look for the value in every idea. Power off the grading system that was installed in your head in kindergarten. Give all of the ideas you encounter an E for Exotic, Exciting and Excellent. Then phrase your concerns in constructive ways that build and refine ideas.
PIBs: Build and refine ideas with a simple process. First, state the Pluses for the idea. Next describe your Issues as questions, wishes or desires. For example, instead of creativity-stopping complaints like, “We don’t have the money for this idea,” state this concern as a “How to” or “I wish” statement like, “I wish to find another way to finance this idea”. Now the creative engine gears up again so that you can generate Builds for the idea, ways to solve the concern and move the idea forward.
Absurdity reigns: If it makes you laugh, pursue it further. Sometimes the most absurd suggestions lead to the best solutions. Focus on the ideas you have energy and passion for, not matter how crazy they may seem. It’s much easier to rein in a silly idea than it is to expand a dull one.
Diversity: The creative dream team includes people with different skill sets, backgrounds, personalities and perspectives. Bring in external resources for a fresh perspective from unrelated fields. If you’re working alone, take on the perspective of a different person to add diversity and ask yourself, “How would a teacher, sculptor or dentist solve this problem?” Follow Woodrow Wilson’s example, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”
More is better: To discover truly creative solutions, strive for quantity. After you’ve unearthed the tried and true, dig deeper to find ideas that surprise you. Linus Pauling said it best, “The only way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”
Freshness: It is possible to recapture the curiosity that was a natural part of your childhood. Seek out new ideas, fresh perspectives and collect things that interest you. Constantly refresh your sources of inspiration. Hold a team meeting in a provocative new environment, like an art gallery, mountain lodge or children’s museum, a space designed to take you away from the everyday distractions of your office. Create a Fresh Thinking Day and invite experts from outside of your industry to speak at your company, or visit an expert in their workplace. Force connections between fresh stimuli and your challenge by asking yourself, “What ideas does this suggest for my problem?”
Realness: To breathe life into new ideas, find a way to visually represent abstract concepts. Build a new product model out of play-doh or paint a picture of your key strategies. Research suggests that visuals increase understanding and acceptance of new ideas, leading to a better chance of implementation.
Momentum: Idea generation is usually the easiest part of the innovation process. The implementation phase is where things sometimes break down. To ensure that great ideas become true innovations create an innovation plan, a detailed outline of what must happen, who will do it and by when. Add to this plan a list of momentum breakers, the people and processes in your organization that might take your ideas off track. Problem-solve to overcome the potential challenges posed by the momentum breakers. Engage the support of an idea champion, a person with the power to take your new ideas further.
Celebrate failure: Taking risks and failing is an essential part of the innovation process. Celebrate failure to show that trying new things is more important than getting it right the first time. Throw a Failure Party to remind people that Edison built 3,000 light bulb prototypes before he found success.
Be the change: To bring a more creative mindset to your organization or team, model the creative behavior you’d like to see by listening generously, participating fully and building on ideas. Listening generously means truly listening to understand ideas, rather than rehearsing your responses and criticisms. Participating fully means offering all of your ideas, no matter how small or unfinished they may seem to you. Your idea nugget may spark a build for a colleague. Listening, participating and building on ideas helps to create an environment where ideas flow freely.