Have you ever had an outrageous idea at work? Have you ever thought up an idea so ridiculous that you dared not mention it to your colleagues because you knew that they would laugh at? Have you ever kept a strange idea to yourself rather than share it with others simply because you were sure they would reject it, so you thought: “why bother?”
If so, you are like just about everyone on the planet. That’s because you have in your mind an inner censor who reviews ideas and rejects those that it finds unsuitable. There is nothing wrong with this situation. Indeed, probably the only people who do not have inner censors are those who are insane.
The inner censor is a necessary mental filter. It prevents us from blurting out ideas that might be dangerous, offensive or immoral. For instance, if you are trying to think up innovative ways to earn money and have an idea that involves theft, your inner censor would prevent you from taking that idea seriously. If you are brainstorming with an attractive colleague, your inner censor prevents you from suggesting ideas that would be most unsuitable for the office!
Over time, our creative mind learns to anticipate the inner censor and simply stops devising potentially outrageous ideas.
Unfortunately, in most of us, the inner censor is too strict. We censor ideas not only because they might be offensive, but because we fear they may be ridiculous and that by sharing such ideas we could make ourselves ridiculous. We also censor ideas because we have learned that colleagues reject unusual suggestions. Over time, our creative mind learns to anticipate the inner censor and simply stops devising potentially outrageous ideas. And this is a bad thing: the inner censor has stifled our creativity.
Indeed, my theory is that this is why young children can be so imaginative, yet grow into adults who seldom demonstrate any creativity at all (I am talking about adults other than you, of course, dear reader). As children, their inner censors are lax, but as they grow older, their censors learn to be ever more vigilant and severe, stamping out original ideas as soon as they start to formulate.
It does not need to be like this.
If you want to make the most of your creative potential, you need to learn how to override your inner censor so that it does not stifle your most imaginative ideas. The best way to do this is by encouraging your censor to censor ideas that are not ridiculous. In other words, reverse your censor.
Practice on your own. After all, the reason your censor is so strict is because you are worried about how others will react to your ideas. So, you need to get away from those others while retraining your censor – at least initially.
Get started in retraining your censor by using structured, creative problem solving. Take some time to formulate a problem or goal into a creative challenge. However, in your creative challenge, emphasise the importance of outrageousness or weirdness of ideas. For example, if you are looking for ways to improve customer service in your firm, you might challenge yourself with: “In what weird and unexpected ways might we better serve our customers?” If you are looking for income opportunities, challenge yourself with: “What wild and crazy schemes might I launch in order to earn more money?” and so on.
With every idea you write down, push yourself to come up with an even more outrageous alternative to that idea.
Then, when you begin idea generation, don’t block your craziest ideas. Encourage them! With every idea you write down, push yourself to come up with an even more outrageous alternative to that idea. And keep pushing!
This exercise will help you regain control of your inner censor. And as you become more used to pushing yourself through structured exercise, you can and should learn to fool your inner censor when generating ideas in your day to day life.
When you need to come up with ideas, prod that censor in your mind by telling it to reject ideas that are not outrageous enough. Nevertheless, make a note of those rejected ideas just as a record of what you are thinking.
In time, you will not need to prod your inner censor any more. It will be used to pushing for more outrageous and unusual ideas. Moreover, you will find that your thinking is becoming more and more creative.
If you are worried that as you generate ever more outrageous ideas, you will not be able to solve problems that require conventional solutions, bear in mind that following an idea generation session, it is always easier to make outrageous ideas less outrageous than it is to make boring ideas more outrageous!
If you are facilitating a brainstorming session or just leading a group through an exercise to generate ideas, you will want to discourage members from being stifled by their inner censors. There is an easy and well proven way to do this. Simply encourage and reward (even if the reward is simply a compliment) ideas for creativity, outrageousness or uniqueness.
In business, we tend to encourage people to have “best ideas”. We do this by telling people that after brainstorming, we will vote for the best ideas; or telling them that the person who submits the best idea will win a reward; or that we will publish the five best ideas on the company intranet.
However, research has shown that when you reward brainstormers for best ideas, they actually have fewer ideas and demonstrate a narrower range of thinking than if there is no such reward. In other words, encouraging brainstormers to have “best ideas” actually results in less creativity than no specific encouragement!
Similar research has also demonstrated that when you reward people for the “most creative ideas” you also see fewer ideas being generated, but those ideas are more wide ranging and creative than if no rewards are given. And this is exactly what you want from an ideation session: creative ideas.
When you think about this in terms of our inner censors, it is entirely logical. When we aim for the best ideas, we aim to please our managers, clients or whomever with ideas similar to ideas we know they will like. At the same time, our inner censors reject ideas that are radically different to what we expect the target to like.
However, if we aim for creative or original ideas, we are telling our inner censors to reject ideas that are overly conventional. And we are striving to be more creative.
Once again, your inner censor is a good thing. It prevents you from suggesting ideas that are rude, offensive, dangerous or immoral. However, if you want to be more creative, you need to train that censor to censor conventional ideas and strive to generate more creative, more original and more outrageous ideas. It will take time. After all, you started training your censor when you started growing up. But once you teach it who is boss, you will find that you are regularly generating more creative ideas than you have done in the past.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
Photo: Funny guy with censored sign paper concept from Shutterstock.com