By: Chuck Lewis, Senior Creative at SoMe
A few years back, I stopped by a local gym for an introductory consultation. The idea for this first meeting was that we’d have a short discussion, I’d fill out a worksheet with my fitness goals, and the trainer would walk me through a few basic movements. I’d be in and out in 15 minutes. But, before we got started, it was time to stretch.
The necessity of stretching and ‘warming up’ for any type of physical activity seems obvious. It improves range of motion, functional efficiency, and prepares the body for the stress it’s about to undergo. So why don’t we ‘stretch’ before jumping head-first into other activities?
We’ve all been in meetings where we’re prompted to start throwing out ideas. The prompt is usually met with varied lengths of silence before someone on the team kickstarts the discussion – usually with a fairly obvious response. As more team members start to chime in, we’re able to generate a decent list. As the exercise winds down, ideas start to get a little wackier and most team members bow out before saying something that makes them look crazy. Everyone takes a step back to look at the list and one of the first (read as ‘safe’) ideas is chosen. And, of course, your best idea comes to you 10 minutes after you’ve left the meeting and are back at your desk.
The biggest problem with this all-too-familiar meeting format is that the team started to ‘exercise’ before providing enough time to ‘stretch.’ When the meeting kicks off, no one has loosened up enough to participate in a meaningful way. In the same way that we wouldn’t expect peak physical performance from an athlete who hadn’t warmed up, we shouldn’t expect great ideas to start flowing right away. So, we start with the obvious answer.
After this first idea, our hypothetical team starts to throw out more thoughts. Initial ideas are usually followed by approving nods or “I-was-just-gonna-say-that”s and the team starts to confuse consensus for success. At this point in the meeting, our team is just about finished getting loose when someone finally throws out a new idea.
There are a few ways that this idea will be received. In one scenario, this new idea really gets the rest of the team thinking. The energy in the room shifts and everyone locks in on fully formulating this new, best idea. The more likely scenario is that it’s met with the verbal equivalent of a participation trophy (“Okay, sure. What else?”). Whatever the case, if a new idea doesn’t recognizably point the team toward a linear path to solving the problem, it’s usually set aside. A clear ‘winner’ begins to emerge and, as the team spends more and more time discussing how to make that idea work, the introduction of a different idea can only be seen as disruptive (sometimes the team even acknowledges that a new idea is better, but sets it aside to avoid any sunken cost in focus!).
The flaw in this format is that without giving the team space to warm up without any stakes, it becomes really difficult to avoid focusing on one of our first answers. We tend to treat the brainstorming process like a funnel in which we start with a lot of ideas and then narrow them down until we’re left with our winner. Because of this, you can only move forward by eliminating ideas – a process that isn’t compatible with creative thinking. Instead of this, we should look at the creative process like a wine glass. In this way, we start with a handful of ideas and, as we move deeper into the exercise, generate more and more ideas as the team loosens up. Only after we’ve run out of new thoughts and different ways to connect what’s in front of us does it make sense to start editing these thoughts down to our final direction.
We’ll explore a handful of approaches to generating new ideas at greater depth in the future, but will walk through a few of them here. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the first step is about filling the page (or whiteboard) with as many thoughts and directions as possible. Doing so in a visible format, regardless of whether you’re brainstorming with a team or working through ideas on your own, is also a critical component for building new connections that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Try not to take a single idea too far and DON’T FILTER IDEAS! An idea might not be great and might even get a few laughs from the team, but it’s important to leave it in. As we’ll see in some of the following approaches, we can use these ‘bad ideas’ to spark trains of thought that get us into uncharted creative terrain and worry about tying everything back together later.
In the late 1960s, Edward de Bono introduced the concept of lateral thinking – a tool meant to circumvent step-by-step thinking in order to produce more creative, original thinking. In order to get there, mind mapping is our biggest ally. You’ve probably seen some version of a mind map before – it’s the token stock photo for just about every article on brainstorming, but I’ve rarely been in a meeting where the team decided to use one. That said, I use them all the time when I’m kicking off a new creative project.
We start off with our main prompt (usually a brand name or story-hook in the creative world) in the middle of the page. Then, we spend some time coming up with 6 to 8 related ideas. These will feel pretty obvious at first, but it’s fun to try and squeeze at least one concept that’s a little out of left field. From this step, we do the same thing (come up with around 4 to 6 related ideas) for each concept, creating a visual web.
So, let’s say our client sells granola bars. Our obvious visual might be that all of the ingredients are swirling around as we list them out before they slam together to create our final product. But, what if we use our mind map exercise? We could start by listing a couple ingredients – oats, honey, almonds. Then we’ll add some adjectives the brand wants to be associated with – healthy, active, clean. We can keep working through the exercise until we come up with something completely new – maybe a colony of worker bees expertly assembles the granola bar ingredients, using their honey to glue everything together. At the end, they present the final bar to the discerning queen bee for a final taste test. It would have been a bit of a leap to get to that idea right away, but mapping out related concepts before looking for new connections helps to spark these new ideas.
Tips: I like to take most ideas at least three layers deep, but that can lead to a pretty messy mind map. There are plenty of tools online to help you build and organize your ideas without being cumbersome (I like MindNode for Mac). I also rarely get through these exercises without struggling for ideas toward the end, but that’s what we want. Some of the best, most ‘out-there’ ideas come from that final push for answers.
There are plenty of times where the ideas just aren’t there. You start jotting down notes for your mind map and that creative spark you were hoping for isn’t coming. Or, you’re a half-hour into a project and it feels like every step you take is in the wrong direction. When you hit a wall, sometimes the most productive thing to do is get up and go for a walk.
What’s important here isn’t the act of walking, though there are a few reasons it’s my go-to. Our goal is to literally bring our problem to a different environment to find new ways of looking at it. In the mind mapping process, we’re trying to come up with ideas that are further and further removed from the initial prompt in order to establish new connections. Bringing the problem to a new environment can often accomplish something very similar, in that our brain is fed a lot of seemingly unrelated information while it’s hard at work processing a problem. Though this is a subconscious process (we’re not literally spotting a pigeon and scrambling to find ways to work it into our project scope), the change of scenery tends to inspire some fresh ideas and direction. This is one of the reasons why new ideas always seem to pop up after everyone’s left the meeting to head back to their desks.
Tips: Try to avoid asking a co-worker to tag along or the temptation to listen to music while you walk. The goal is to be present and continue thinking through the idea when inspiration strikes, so we want to avoid tuning it out. I like downtown areas with a variety of storefronts and people going about their day.
A huge, but generally unappreciated part of creative problem solving is practice and experience. We know that the best athletes in the world started with some level of athletic aptitude, but spent years and years getting to where they are (and hours a day staying there). It’d be bizarre if I woefully told you I could never be half as good at basketball as Michael Jordan and you knew I hadn’t touched a basketball in 10 years. I shouldn’t expect to be good at something I haven’t spent any time getting good at. With that being said, a lot of people treat creative thinking like something that’s divinely gifted to a select few during childhood and inaccessible for everyone else. The practice and experience components are actually far more important, but how do we get there?
I’m a huge proponent of learning new skills in order to practice creative thinking. And, it’s important that you get a little uncomfortable. Whether it’s an online course or picking up a new hobby, there’s a lot of value in learning to accept the idea that you don’t know what you’re doing… yet.
While quarantining, I’ve been practicing a couple of new skills and have undoubtedly failed a few times along the way. My grandfather’s family is originally from Denmark, so I’ve had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to learn Danish for a while. Each language has its own quirks, but the reason Danish is one of the hardest to learn is that things aren’t necessarily pronounced how they’re spelled or with the same vocal muscles as in English (YouTube “rødgrød med fløde” for reference). So, when on day one of eagerly diving headfirst into language learning I was face-to-face with a word I was physically unable to recreate, I was disheartened to say the least. I spent a lot of time over the next couple of weeks searching for exercises to get better at pronouncing the elusive Danish ‘soft D’ (it’s like the English ‘th’ sound but a little further back on the roof of the mouth) and am slowly getting there.
While I hope to learn something that passes as Danish, what I’m actually getting better at is learning how to creatively solve a problem in an environment where I expect myself to fail. We start in uncharted territory and have to learn how to navigate something completely alien to us. It’s all about teaching ourselves to build connections until things start to make sense. Suddenly other problems start to look familiar and it’s not intimidating that we don’t know how the problem’s going to get solved – we’ve practiced taking creative steps to solve problems.
Tips: There’s a lot of value in reading and consuming interesting podcasts to save up creative fodder, but try to pick something actionable in order to make this work best. We’re aiming to make ourselves a little uncomfortable here, so it shouldn’t be a passive experience.
Above all else, it’s important that we start looking at creativity as something that comes through practice and process instead of a trait someone has like brown hair or blue eyes. Everyone can contribute in a meaningful way to the creative problem solving process when enabled by their environment, but that means the time spent on creativity has to match the value we place in it. Encourage your team to generate ideas through additive means with a built-in ‘stretch’ like mind mapping before racing to come up with an answer. Get away from your desk for a bit to see how solutions develop with time and in new environments. And, practice solving problems by learning new skills and understanding that missteps are an unavoidable part of feeling your way through the dark. We are all as creative as the time we spend practicing creativity allows us to be.
SoMe is a digital marketing agency headquartered in Chicago. SoMe partners with clients in the pursuit of reaching their marketing and business goals through digital platforms. We combine digital expertise with innovative creative to get the right message to the right customer at the right time. Get in touch to see how we can help you with results driven digital marketing.