Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
Wednesday 20 April 2011
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your twice-monthly (or thereabouts) newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.
Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found at the end of this newsletter.
JEFFREY IS ON TWITTER: @creativeJeffrey
I have been playing with Twitter the past few weeks and am still trying to 1) find my voice there and 2) ensure I add mostly meaningful noise to an already very noisy place. My Twitter name is CreativeJeffrey and you can find me at http://twitter.com/creativeJeffrey.
ANTI-CONVENTIONAL THINKING (ACT)
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 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.
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 revolutionise 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:
- Criticism is to focus on conventional ideas and boring ideas.
- Criticism will always be formulated politely and respectfully.
- Whenever an idea is criticised, 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.
Only Scratched the Surface
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 Report 103 and elsewhere. In the meantime, as always, I value your thoughts on the topic. Please share them with me!
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HOLIDAY
Last week, my patchwork family and I took a holiday in Brittany in France. It is a beautiful and inspiring place where we spent time walking along the blustery, quite shore before the tourist season turned it into a crowded beach. We also visited Mont St-Michel, which has been described as “the wonder of the Western world” and is wrenchingly beautiful, as well as a number of other beautiful spots.
However, my family is perhaps a little unusual. I am a single father of two boys. My girlfriend, who also joined us, is not the mother of my children and lives in another city. We were all born in a different countries and speak various languages as our mother tongues. My boys, are perfectly bilingual English-Dutch and easily switch languages while talking between themselves. My girlfriend is German, but speaks excellent English while I am a native English speaker.
As the common link in all this, I feel a responsibility to ensure everyone is happy. I also have to take full responsibility for the children and looking after their needs. As a result, between enjoying the holiday and looking after everyone’s needs, I did not have a single moment to think about work, organisational innovation, creativity theory or innovation process management software at all. Bliss!!
But, after we returned, unpacked, sent the children off to spend some time with their mother and my girlfriend fled to her quiet flat in Antwerp and I started catching up with work, my mind quickly returned to the challenges of work open projects and projects waiting to get started. Better still, it was full of new ideas and some solutions to problems that had been pestering me for weeks.
Clearly, something happened in my mind for it to spew forth with so much useful stuff! I suppose it is simply refreshed from a terrific holiday with the people I love.
This is an important reminder that we need true holidays from time to time. Holidays in which we disconnect from work and professional projects and spend time with our families (if we have them), with loved ones, with friends or even alone. We need to turn off, or at least severely limit professional email and telephone use. We need to focus on relaxation and doing low stress things that we enjoy.
By allowing our minds to disconnect from work for a week or so, we give them a chance to recharge, we allow them to process information quietly in the background, we bring in new inspirations and ideas and more.
As a result, when our minds return to work, they are refreshed, inspired and ready for new creative challenges. Any time and productivity lost during the week out of the loop is more than made up for with new ideas, new solutions to problems and a recharged brain.
This is double important for business owners, independents and others who so easily end up working long hours and never entirely disconnecting from work.
IMAGINATION CLUB LAUNCHES IN AUSTRALIA
I am delighted to inform you that an Imagination Club is starting up in Brisbane Australia. Stuart Ayling, the managing director of Marketing Nous (http://www.marketingnous.com.au/) has set up The Imagination Club Australia and their first event will be held on 16 May. If you are in Brisbane on that date, check it out. It only costs AU$10 and will surely be an experience. You can visit the Imagination Club Australia web site at http://imaginationclubau.wordpress.com/
What the Heck Is the Imagination Club?
My good friend Andy Whittle and I started up the Imagination Club in Brussels a few years ago. Conceptually it is very simple. Twice every month we hold a short, experimental workshop that is somehow creative. The workshop may address creativity as a subject or it might simply be creative in its approach.
However, the important thing is that the workshops are limited to 90 minutes and are experimental. We do not want sales pitches or demonstrations. But we welcome experienced facilitators who want to try out something new in a receptive environment, we embrace people who want to move into the training and facilitation business and need a platform to try out their skills and we adore people who have no interest in professional training, but who wish to share something about which they are passionate.
We are proud that two members, who have since developed successful businesses (which involve training workshops), did their first ever workshops at the Club.
As a result, a Brussels Imagination Club workshop is always an experience. Sometimes it may run with professional smoothness. Sometimes it may be a bit rough as the result of lack of experience. But we always learn something – often in unexpected ways.
Not a Business Networking Activity, but a Place to Meet Cool People
Our mailing list now boasts 300 people and a typical workshop includes between 15 and 30 participants. Because we operate in English in a very international city, there is always a large variety of nationalities present. If there are 20 participants, they typically represent a dozen nationalities. So, we meet some fascinating people from all over the place.
The Imagination Club is not a business networking club. People come to make friends and meet new people to enrich themselves rather than to make a sale or get new leads.
As you can probably tell, I am very proud of what Andy and I have started up, but which has come alive thanks to the wonderful people who participate twice every month.
Moreover, we are delighted that Stuart is starting up an Imagination Club in Brisbane. We are sure that it will be different to the Brussels Imagination Club in many ways. That just makes it more exciting and, most importantly, is keeping with the Imagination Club’s underlying theme of experimentation and learning.
You Could Run an Imagination Club Too
If you would like to enjoy running something as rewarding as the Imagination Club, let me know. We would be happy to advise and support you. The Imagination Club is informal, non-profit activity and jolly good fun!
To learn more about the Brussels Imagination Club, visit http://www.imaginationclub.be/ or to participate in next Wednesday’s workshop, go to http://www.imaginationclub.org/brussels/event20110427.php We’d love to welcome you!
What do you think of the crazy picture of me they have posted on the South African Innovation Summit web site?
I will be speaking and delivering a workshop at this exciting event at the end of August and am very much looking forward to it as well as meeting some people I have corresponded with for years, but whom I have never met in person. What about you? I’d love to meet you too. If you live in South Africa or plan to be in Johannesburg in late August, join this event! http://www.innovationsummit.co.za/)
Just a couple of weeks after that and I will be off to Portugal to deliver a workshop at the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. This is the biggest and most exciting European creativity and innovation conference and I am honoured to be participating. Moreover, Portugal was my home for a while in the mid 80s and it is always a treat to revisit the country. If you are in Portugal or want an excuse to spend some time in the Algarve (the beautiful, beach resort part of Portugal) in September, come join the event! I’d love to meet you and there will be much to learn. http://www.eaci.net/eccixii/index.php
And, of course, I can almost always be found at the Brussels Imagination Club every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. More information at http://www.imaginationclub.org/brussels and http://www.imaginationclub.be/
I could also be speaking or delivering workshops in your company. If you and your colleagues want to learn how to use anti-conventional thinking (ACT – see article above) in order to be more creative, if you want to train your managers to be more receptive to creativity and more participative in your innovation initiative or if you need to plan an innovation process based on strategy, contact me today to discuss your needs. It would be a treat to work with you. More importantly, think how much more value your company could deliver with more creativity and innovation.
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