Cartoon: man arrested for suggesting prohibted idea

Be Boring to Be Creative

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Stuck for creative ideas? Here's a new method for you: be creative by being boring first! In short, identify the conventional ideas in a given situation and then use them as the basis for developing unconventional ideas. This is one of many tricks in anticonventional thinking. Here's how it works.

Start by making a short list of conventional, obvious ideas. The easiest way to do this is probably a mini-brainstorm. Formulate your situation as a traditional brainstorm challenge and generate ideas for 10 minutes or so. Most of the ideas you come up with are likely to be conventional ones. That's good, but if you should come up with a truly creative idea, set it aside for later. Meanwhile, combine related conventional ideas, reformulate them into broader ideas as necessary and list them on a sheet of poster paper, a white board or a notebook page depending on your preference and whether you are collaborating or working alone.

Now, draw a big, red circle around this list of ideas. These are prohibited ideas. You and anyone else generating ideas are not allowed to voice (or write down) ideas that fall in the prohibited ideas category. Is that clear? This is not a nice, all ideas are welcome with love and kisses creativity session. Conventional ideas are prohibited!

If you have some ideas already, test them against the prohibited ideas. If they are good, play with them. Can you expand on them? Can you take them even further away from the prohibitted ideas list? If so, do so!

If you are stuck for ideas or your ideas are not unconventional enough, go through the prohibited ideas and for each one, ask:

  1. What is the opposite of this prohibited idea? Note, there may be more than one opposite.
  2. Take this prohibited idea to such an extreme that your idea is no longer a prohibited idea.
  3. Turn the prohibited idea around to change its meaning. This is not always possible, but when it is, it can be very interesting.


Your company manufactures and markets espresso makers (not surprisingly, I am drinking a mid-morning cappuccino as I write this, which is doubtless the inspiration for this example). Your best selling product has been on the market for some years, is looking a bit out of date and is losing market share to capsule coffee makers (such as Nespresso). So, you put together a small team to come up with creative ideas for rebuilding market share and revenues from your best selling espresso machine.

You brainstorm a list of conventional ideas which you combine and reformulate into a short list:

  1. Reduce prices in order to sell more machines.
  2. Update the design so your machines look newer.
  3. Add capsule functionality.
  4. Add new features.

There is nothing wrong with these ideas, except that they are conventional and you absolutely do not want conventional ideas. So, you draw a red circle around the ideas. They are prohibited ideas.

Look at the first prohibited idea.

Prohibited, boring idea: reduce prices to sell more machines.

Opposite: increase prices. How might you do this? You could reposition your espresso machine as a high quality classic espresso maker for traditionalists. Your next steps might be to re-engineer the machine with better quality components and to emphasise its slightly out of date, classic appearance.

Extreme 1: give the coffee machines away free. How might you do this? You could partner with a coffee distributor and offer a subscription service in which customers pay for quality coffee to be sent to their house and they get a free coffee maker in exchange. This might be modelled after the way many mobile telephone contracts work.

Extreme 2: make the coffee machines incredibly expensive; price them at the same level as a luxury car. How might you do this? You could use super high quality parts, add some gold or diamonds to it. Include regular servicing by a technician for the first three years in the price. Guarantee if for 50 years. Note that this action would result in reduced sales and market share, but if it worked, you could expect significantly higher margins per sale which would result in more revenue and a better reputation in the market.

Turn prohibited idea around in order to change its meaning: "reduce machines in order to sell more at a price". How might you do this? Perhaps you could make a pocket sized espresso maker that attaches to the tap so there is no need for a water reservoir. It would be ideal for travel, keeping in the office, camping and small kitchens.

As you can see, using the prohibited, conventional ideas as a springboard for developing unconventional ideas is an easy way to get creative. You could surely go through the other prohibited ideas on the list and come up with some great, unconventional, creative ideas yourself. And if you do give it a go, share your craziest ideas with me, please. I'd love to read them!

Moreover, as you develop ideas in reaction to the prohibited ideas list, you will soon find other ideas developing in your mind. As this happens, check those ideas against the list. If your ideas are too similar to the prohibitted ones, you must either reject the idea or modify it so that it differs significantly from the prohibited ideas list.

In anticonventional thinking, you should work towards building a single, creative vision for the situation, in this case: 'rebuilding market share and revenues from your best selling espresso machine'. However, if you prefer to make a list of ideas, you can use the prohibited ideas method making those ideas more creative.

Why It Works

If you have learned that the trick to being creative is make long lists or diagrams of ideas in which all ideas should be written down, you may be surprised that this approach works so well. However, it is based on the way your mind processes ideas.

If you are like most mentally healthy people, your brain is programmed to think conventionally most of the time and to follow the status quo. This happens because your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reviews thoughts formed in your mind and tends to reject ideas that stray too far from the status quo; ideas that might be stupid and, as such, cause you embarrassment if shared publicly. Since conforming to social norms is essential for a functioning society, the actions of your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex prevent you from becoming a social outcast or a lunatic. However, when you want to be creative, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex's actions tend to restrict how far your mind will go in terms of coming up with crazy ideas. So, you need to take action to tell this bit of the brain to change its behaviour and approve crazy ideas.

Using a prohibited ideas list simply gives your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex some temporary, new instructions: reject conventional ideas (those that would fall inside the prohibited circle) and approve unconventional ideas (those that would fall outside the prohibited circle).

In effect, you are reprogramming your brain to be creative for a while. It's that simple.

In a Nutshell

So, the next time you need to be creative, make a list of conventional ideas, put a red circle around them to indicate they are prohibited and then use those ideas as a springboard for unconventional, creative ideas that fall outside the prohibited circle.

And let me know how it works for you. I value your feedback!


Further Reading on ACT

If you would like to learn more about ACT, you can read a summary here, download the 18 page white paper (PDF) here or wait for my book.


ACT Workshops in Your Organisation

Would you and your colleagues benefit from learning how to apply anticonventional thinking (ACT) to a variety of business challenges, such as product innovation, dealing with crises, making complex decisions, understanding your customers and many other situations? If so, get in touch and let's talk about how ACT can not only help you innovate, but help your business to thrive.


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




My other web projects

My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey