When you Need Breakthrough Ideas, Consider Anti-conventional Thinking

When you need to develop ideas, don't just focus on generating a large quantity of them. The originality of them is even more important. That's when you should consider Jeffrey Baumgartner's anti-conventional thinking technique.

Have you tried brainstorming, ideas campaigns, crowdsourcing and other idea generation activities only to be disappointed by the results? Does it seem most corporate brainstorm sessions generate little more than pat phrases comprising the management’s favourite buzz words? Does your idea management system fill up largely with predictable ideas that at best might result in incremental innovations? If so, you are not alone.

The truth is, many of these creative exercises – and in spite of what anyone tells you about innovation, idea generation is a creative activity that can eventually result in innovation – are poorly conceived. They are designed to generate as many ideas as possible in the hopes that once the obvious, conventional solutions to problems are exhausted, more creative, unconventional ideas will come to the surface. Yet in truth, the only time this happens is when highly creative people are participating in the brainstorm.

Fortunately, there is a solution that allows normally creative people to behave more like highly creative people and so generate better ideas. I call this method Anti-Conventional Thinking (ACT). It requires that you throw away many of the rules you have learned about brainstorming and idea generation.

What is ACT?

ACT is an approach to creative thinking that involves purposefully rejecting conventional thinking in order to generate unconventional ideas. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it is an approach that people do not consciously follow, but which highly creative people subconsciously do all the time.

Think about it. Creative ideas can be defined as new, unconventional ideas that are formed by combining two or more established ideas in new ways. By definition, then, creative ideas are unconventional. So, it only makes sense to seek them when looking for ideas. To do this, we need to tweak some of the fundamental rules of brainstorming. But first, we need to be clear on what it means to be “anti-conventional”.

How to be anti-conventional

You are doubtless familiar with conventional and unconventional thinking. Conventional thinking is the usual way of thinking and doing things in your organisation and in your industry; in your family and your community; in your society and your culture. Conventional thinking tends to lead to conforming to cultural norms in behaviour and thinking. Unconventional thinking, of course, is the exact opposite. It it taking a point of view or behaving in a way that is contrary to cultural norms.

Being anti-conventional means to be purposefully unconventional. That is to consider what is the conventional reaction to any situation and explicitly doing something different. Being anti-conventional can be as simple as saying “Hey there!” rather than the traditional “good morning” to your colleagues in the morning.

If most of your colleagues drive to work, you can be anti-conventional by bicycling or walking to work.

If the usual way to present results to management is in a PowerPoint presentation of bullet points, you can do your presentation in a slide-show of artistic images or, better yet, do away with PowerPoint all together.

However, being anti-conventional does not mean being rude, dishonest or unethical. Sure, you might consider unethical approaches in the idea generation phase, but only in order to devise ethical approaches that might be inspired by unethical alternatives. In fact, the best means of getting away with being anti-conventional is to be especially polite and well mannered.

Although we are mostly concerned about applying anti-conventional thinking to the idea generation process, purposefully being a little anti-conventional on a daily basis will help you to think more creatively and find creative solutions more easily.

With this in mind, let’s look at how ACT can help you be far more creative at work.

The cult of the idea

The first thing we have to learn to accept is that the quantity of ideas is irrelevant generated in any event is totally irrelevant. Creative problem solving (CPS) experts like to stress the importance of listing is many suggestions as possible during the idea generation phase of a brainstorm. And so many idea jams, crowdsourcing and other idea generaton exercises rate their success based on the number of ideas generated. But the truth is, 100,000 ideas generated is a waste of time and resources if you only implement 10 of them and they are all incremental improvements. On the other hand, generating only five great ideas but implementing them all as a single multi-idea should be considered a screaming success.

But, most corporate idea generation exercises, whether small brainstorming sessions or massive crowdsourcing extravaganzas are designed to generate lots and lots of conventional ideas. They typically succeed. Moreover, the classic brainstorming rule of no criticising of ideas, which is designed to avoid inhibiting people from suggesting radical ideas can actually result in the inhibition of radical ideas. We will get back to this in a moment.

Creative challenges

Most brainstorming events and ideas campaigns are based around a creative challenge or a problem. However, these challenges are typically ill thought out and, even when they are carefully considered, fail to inspire creative thinking. Typical challenges include:

  • What new features might we add to product X?
  • How might we cut costs in our logistics system?

Such challenges fail to inspire truly creative thought and invite highly conventional solutions. Instead, challenges should inspire people to think. Consider these alternatives:

  • In what totally new and unexpected ways could we deliver value to our customers?
  • How might we revolutionize our logistics system?

It should be clear that such challenges will have the opposite effect to traditional corporate brainstorms where people suggest lots of conventional ideas, but are afraid of being mocked for suggesting wild and crazy ideas. With these examples, you are actually encouraging unconventional ideas and discouraging the conventional.

But why should the challenge remain the same throughout the brainstorm or ideas campaign? If you look at truly creative people, like artists, at work, you will see that they continually re-frame their focus. In effect, they create sub-challenges as they define solutions to their challenges. A sculptor carving away at a piece of wood to make an abstract female figure will likely be inspired by the wood as she works, changing the proportions and positioning of the figure. The end result will still be the female body, but the details may well be different from her initial vision.

Comic teams preparing scripts for a television show will start with a theme for the show, but if someone comes up with a brilliant joke, it may result in taking the characters in a direction unanticipated before the joke was written into the script.

Likewise, when solving corporate problems, you need to be flexible with the challenge. Of course you need to maintain the big picture. But why not create subchallenges as creative participants generate great, unconventional ideas? After all, incredible ideas can change your outlook on the challenge you are addressing.

Unconventional ideas only, please

As individuals and in teams, normally creative people tend to squelch outrageous ideas because they fear those ideas may be stupid. Worse, they fear that may face ridicule or reprimand for sharing wildly unconventional ideas. This is doubly true if they are forced to share those ideas with someone higher up the corporate ladder.

To allay this fear, Alex Osborn (who invented brainstorming) rightfully included the rule that Hence that you should never criticise ideas in a brainstorm.

But the truth is, unless a brainstorm comprises highly creative people (and it is important to note that Mr. Osborn ran an advertising agency, so his pioneering brainstorms surely did include highly creative people), participants will squelch their own outrageous ideas before sharing them with colleagues This is doubly true if the creative challenge they are addressing is conventional in nature.

This is because we all have inner censors that review our ideas before taking action on them. These inner censors are a necessary part of the mind. They analyse ideas and prevent us from doing things that could get us in trouble. For instance, if you are urgently in need of money, your inner censor will (I hope), prevent you from taking action on an idea to mug the rich old lady who lives across the road and always carries lots of cash in her handbag. Likewise, this censor also prevents us from saying rude things in polite company. Sadly, it also prevents many of us from suggesting outrageous ideas at work for fear of real or imagined consequences.

So, rather than push people to turn off their inner censors, which is unnatural and difficult, it makes more sense to use those censors to stop conventional ideas and let unconventional ideas pass. How? Simply start with an unconventional challenge and then establish a rule that ONLY unconventional ideas are allowed.

Moreover, rather than prohibit criticism, welcome it! But, there should be three rules:

  1. Criticism is to focus on conventional ideas and boring ideas.
  2. Criticism will always be formulated politely and respectfully.
  3. Whenever an idea is criticized, the person who suggested the idea and anyone else in the group must be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to defend the idea.

This will serve several purposes that will result in fewer ideas than traditional brainstorming, but those ideas will be far more creative. Firstly, by rejecting conventional ideas – which will be obvious to anyone in the company anyway – you reduce the administrative overload that comes from having to review lots of mediocre ideas.

Secondly, by allowing people to defend their ideas and their colleagues’ ideas, you push people to think in more depth about their ideas and toimprove them in ways that make them more viable for your company.

Your goal is not quantity. It is unconventionality

The key thing to bear in mind here is that unlike in brainstorming, your goal is not to generate as many ideas as possible in hopes that a few will be good ideas. Your goal is to generate a few  unconventional ideas that could make a big difference.

This is why the process is called “anti-conventional” thinking. Your aim is to go against the conventional and be unconventional. Be a rebel. Be different. Be creative. An insane idea that results in a breakthrough innovation is worth far more than a dozen small ideas that result in incremental innovation.

ACT also works solo

ACT works just fine when you are trying to generate ideas on your own. Simply follow the same rules:

Frame a challenge that pushes you to think unconventionally Allow yourself to re-frame the challenge and introduce sub-challenges as you define the solution in your ideas. Reject conventional ideas. They are too easy. Criticise your own ideas, but when you do you must then try to defend the ideas. Sometimes this will result in new and more radical ideas. More often it will make you rethink the original idea and determine how you could improve it. These are good things.

In fact, this is essentially what creative people such as artists, musicians, writers and others do all the time. They purposefully reject conventional solutions for unconventional solutions. Pablo Picasso did not ask himself how he could paint better portraits. Rather he asked outrageous questions such as how could he show three dimensional subjects from multiple viewpoints on a two dimensional canvas? His solution to this problem was to invent, along with Georges Braque, cubism: a radically new and extremely creative art movement.

Be creative at every step

To a great extent, ACT requires that you be creative and unconventional at every step of the idea generation process, from defining challenges that encourage unconventional thinking to generating unconventional ideas to defending those ideas and their unconventionality. Again, this is how highly creative people do it naturally. The better you become at emulating this process the better you become at being exceptionally creative.

Conclusion

This article only scratches the surface of ACT. I plan to develop the concept over the next few months and will doubtless address it again in another article. In the meantime, as always, I value your thoughts on the topic. Please share them with me!

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

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.

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