Strategy and brainstorming facilitation in Ojai, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles

“I’m not really the creative type”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that in a corporate setting – as an excuse for not wanting to participate in brainstorming, for sticking with the same-old same-old, or for passing the innovation buck to someone else in the organization…

Here’s a newsflash. We’re all born creative. Remember making up games as a kid? Playing with Lego? Drawing? Remember how much fun that was, and how good you were at it? We’re born creative but growing up beats it out of us. Parents, school, and workmates are all quick to tell us there’s a right and wrong way to do things. We learn not to stick our neck out too far.

Then one day, it’s your job to come up with a new idea for a new revenue stream, a killer app, or the next big feature.

Have no fear. There are lots of ways to unlock the latent creativity that’s been driven into the recesses of your brain from years of TPS reports and differential calculus. Here are a few that have worked for me:

Steal

As an industry, we’re so caught up in finding the “next big idea”. But look at some of the most successful, innovative products of the past few years, from the poster child of innovation – Apple. The iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad were not new ideas – they were simply much better executed versions of the MP3 player, the smartphone, and the tablet, all of which had been around for years, and all of which really stunk. The iPod, in particular, was just a better business model, based on the premise that (shock!) people want to be able to find music and listen to it on their player without being an expert in sifting through Napster for a decent version or feeling like public copyright enemy #1.

Even pure “creative types” – artists and musicians – steal shamelessly. We tend to look at a piece of art, or a song, as a snapshot in time-  a sudden spark of genius – but they are more often evolutions and mashups of other styles and past works.

Stop setting the bar so high. Sometimes the best idea is the simplest one, and sometimes it comes down to simply doing a better job at a product than everyone else.

Get out of the office

When’s the last time you heard, “I was sitting in the latest budget meeting, and BAM – it hit me!” We think of our best ideas in the shower, or on walks, because we’re giving ourselves the space to think, and think differently. Most of the time we’re slaves to our inbox and todo list. Next time you’re stuck, get out of the office – go for a hike, go for lunch with someone you haven’t seen in a while, or visit a museum. Remember, you’re not paid for the number of hours you log in your Aeron chair – you’re paid for your brainpower, and the value you bring to the company.

Add more diversity to meetings

One of the biggest enemies of innovation is homogeneity. Do you ever find that your team is bringing the same old ideas to the table – that they are stuck in a rut? Try bringing different viewpoints to your next meeting. Invite in someone very new to the organization. Invite in a salesperson, and someone from customer service. Bring in a customer. Hire people with diverse backgrounds and interests. Hire from different schools. Hire from arts schools!

There’s a reason why IDEO, considered one of the world’s most innovative companies, staffs every project with a diverse set of competencies – designers, engineers, anthropologists, researchers – and hires people who have multi-disciplinary backgrounds and hobbies completely tangential to their work. Diversity brings diversity of thought, and diversity of ideas. The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of different ideas.

Get an outside perspective

When I was at Macadamian, we were always looking for new ways of doing things that would give us an edge with clients. However, I would never go looking for how other software consultancies did things. I would go to completely different industries. I wanted to know how industrial design firms works, how accountants serviced their customers, or how the best restaurants trained their staff. It was from touring places like these, and having lunch with lawyers, that gave me the ideas that set us apart. Most of the time, people in identical circumstances come up with essentially the same ideas and draw the same conclusions. If you want fresh thinking, get out of your industry.

Observe

We all think we know our customers, and can anticipate their needs. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re not getting out and watching customers in their natural habitat, you’re missing one of the biggest sources for new ideas and breakthroughs. Oxo, one of the most innovative companies in their space, gets a ton of their ideas from simply watching people work in their kitchen. You simply can’t anticipate or imagine all of the possible workarounds, setups, and workflows of your customers. If you really observe and listen, unobtrusively, and without judgement or preconceived notions, you’ll be shocked by what you learn. I’ve heard all your excuses – “it’s hard for me to get out of the office” and “I can’t get to our customers; they are too [far away/secretive/bureaucratic] – and I’m calling BS. Get out of your cube for a day and go see how your customers actually work.

Test

Sometimes you do all of the above, you come up with what you think is the next killer app, and no-one gets it. Or it misses the mark slightly. The best way to avoid that fate is to test constantly, and really listen. And whatever you do, don’t wait until the product is ready to test. At that point, you will have invested so much in building it, and will be under so much pressure to get it to market, that there’s no going back. Instead, start testing the idea right away, in as lightweight, low-fidelity ways as possible. Use sketches, then lo-fi prototypes, then higher fidelity prototypes as the idea develops. Iterate constantly.

Play Games

Sure, I have a bias for things like Innovation Games and Gamestorming that’s obvious from the rest of my site, and that’s because they work. First, ideation and brainstorming need structure, and games give you context, rules, and time limits that help structure brainstorming and make them much more effective than open-ended brainstorming, which often gets stuck in ruts and is often hard to bring to a productive close. Second, games help people think differently – it gives them a safe place to contribute freely. Where open-ended brainstorming sessions are often dominated by the same people, games are the great equalizer, and a good game is designed to get equal input from everyone.

I hate to break it to you, but you are a creative type – you just didn’t know it. So go trade in those chinos for an all-black outfit and a pair of funky spectacles and start innovating!

One Response to “7 ways to unlock creativity”

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