It's time to retire "the creative breakthrough," the notion that creative professionals get struck by inspiration—a lightening bolt of an idea!—and suddenly imagine fully baked plans, perfect solutions and exact metaphors that take brands from zero to hero in a flash.
In truth, creativity is a lot more mundane. We don't like to talk about the process of creating because it usually conflates with our self image of being big thinkers, innovative problem solvers and new idea generators. But creativity is a process and one that anyone can replicate to ensure they're getting the best ideas from their team, coworkers and partners consistently.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. — Steve Jobs
That's creativity in a nutshell. Read on for our foolproof guide to creative idea generation.
Feed your head.
Great ideas without context are only exercises in vanity. We've all sat through the brainstorm where the "big thinker" throws out concept after concept but none of them seem applicable, relevant or workable. This is usually because the "big thinker" hasn't done their homework.
Good ideas start with good information. Set aside an hour or two to read everything you can about the problem at hand—whether you're trying to tackle a messaging challenge or create a new technology company. Ask yourself: What does the existing landscape look like? Who is doing something similar? How is this different? What is it that clients and prospects really want in this solution?
Reading, especially briefs and industry trend articles, is good. Talking to people is better.
My former life as a reporter taught me that people's first response when you ask them why they're doing something is rarely the full story. Channel your inner toddler and keep asking why? why? why? until you've come to some kernel of the truth that reflects the actual problem at hand ("Our messaging doesn't tell clients what we do!" "There's no technological solution that will automate doing laundry!"). You'll know you've reached the truth when your own assumptions are challenged and maybe even changed.
Of course, if Steve Jobs is right and creativity really is about connections, you need to read more than work-related blogs, memos and emails. Get engaged with the news, art, trade journals, literature—read everything and anything you can get your hands on, from the back of shampoo bottles to scholarly journals. Every bit of information will get stored away and you never know when it might come back to solve a particularly challenging problem.
Take a nap.
Awww, my favorite part of the creative process. Once you cram your head full of new information, you need to let things marinate and reassemble themselves. That means you get to take a break!
Most of us work in offices that frown upon a little shut eye in the middle of the day. That behavior didn't even hold up at Sterling Cooper where rules and regulations were ... lax.
There are other ways to give your conscious mind a break. You can take a walk, meditate, have lunch with a friend or just do some mundane filing, time tracking or expense reporting. The goal is to give your brain a chance to work through all of the information you just uploaded by focusing on something else that isn't at all mentally taxing.
There's a reason we get our best ideas in the shower or on vacation: because we give ourselves permission to stop worrying over outcomes and just let our subconscious do its thing. Instead of waiting until minutes before a brainstorm meeting starts to look at the brief or background material, look at it the night before. You'll be surprised what comes to you by morning!
Write down your ideas as soon as they come to you.
Capture every fleeting idea and drive for change. — Sir Richard Branson
If you don't write it down, you will forget. It's that simple.
But you don't need a fancy Moleskin or collection of Post-It notes cluttering your office space. Use your phone's notes app or voice memo function to jot down ideas as they come, in as few words as possible (just not so few words that you're left scratching your head over what it is you wanted to remember).
As you start to incorporate daily moments of self reflection and note taking, you might find ideas start to pile up, especially for projects that aren't active. Keep the good ideas, the ones you like, in your preferred app and move everything else to a Word doc that you can revisit for a rainy day.
Structure (and schedule) the team brainstorm.
First things first, if anyone hasn't done the reading, they need to leave. Seriously.
If you don't have the authority to throw them out, ask someone more senior to get on board with the "no uninformed opinions" rule. Otherwise, you're doomed to spend at least half of your scheduled time getting someone else up to speed.
Your goal should be to accomplish three things:
- Clearly articulate the problem you're trying to solve. You asked why why why. So did your coworkers or teammates. But you may come to different conclusions. Get it all out on the table early and spend a few minutes reshaping your problem framework as one group.
- Share your ideas . Once everyone can agree on the scope of the problem, you can start sharing your ideas as potential solutions. The more ideas the better. And no one gets to make a value judgment about the ideas presented (No "That's dumb." "That will never work." "I just don't see it.") Everyone in the brainstorm must participate by sharing ideas, no matter how big or small. If they don't offer an idea, ask their opinion. Capture as much of the conversation as possible either as a team or with a single note taker.
- Be open to feedback. The last piece of the brainstorm is to identify any given idea's shortcomings, such as the pieces of the problem the idea won't address, and suggesting alternative solutions. By getting the ideas out and then starting to evaluate them as solutions rather than just creative ideas, you'll be able to recombine suggestions into something perfectly geared toward one shared outcome.
Check in one day after the brainstorm to capture any new ideas.
The power of sleep is real, y'all. Sometimes the winning idea doesn't come up in the brainstorm but occurs to one of the idea generators the next day.
Be open to it. Ask for it. Capture it.
Illustrate your idea and initial plan.
No, you don't actually have to draw it. But if you need further buy in for your idea, you're going to have to get people excited about what your idea means for them.
Too often, people try to sell their idea by backing into it, going over pages and pages of research and a step-by-step review of the ideation process. But all anybody—your boss, your client, your coworkers—care about is that you've gotten to some root of the problem and created concepts to address it.
So start there! Restate the problem your team identified and then frame your idea as a comprehensive solution to that problem.