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How to develop great ideas

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

Most people are clear on the importance creativity plays in driving innovation, however, remain unsure over what exactly drives creativity. This ambiguity has led rise to the notion that you are either born a creative or not. This idea is very much false, and much like everything else in life creativity can be developed with practice. This article gives insight into various contributing factors towards creativity and in the process illustrates some simple measures that you can implement to increase your creative output. These ideas are mainly illustrated in the context of a business environment but can easily be extrapolated to fit any area of interest that requires creativity.

1. Subscribe to idea focused thinking

When faced with an ambiguous problem, the first steps you should take in finding a solution is to define its parameters. Here you should list all the resources you have available to you and the time constraints you must work under. This gives you a picture of the environment in which you are operating and can in some sense make a solution easier to come by, as it narrows your focus, which can help guide you towards an eligible solution.

In such scenarios, it is imperative that you provoke ideas, through engaging in specific idea focused thinking. The probability of you stumbling across anything of substance if you are not doing this is negligible. This may sound like the most obvious piece of advice ever given, but it is important to recognise, that if you do not actively try to conceptualise new ideas, you’re not going to generate any new ideas.

It is also good practice to write down your ideas. Writing immerses us into the scenario of the idea, physicalising it and allowing us to grasp a better understanding of its intricacies. Once you have done this, start testing out your assumptions as soon as possible. An often-recurring mistake is the inclination to try and iron out every chink in an idea before putting anything into action. This neglects to take into account that ideas spark ideas, and if you try to fully comprehend an idea without taking action, you prohibit yourself from building on top of this initial idea. Thus, leaving you stuck in the beginning stages of development. In summary, ideas are built through iterations, hence you must learn as you work.

2. Recognise anchors

British economist John Maynard Keynes once said that ‘the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as escaping from old ones.’ This quote puts very elegantly a major barrier to human creativity. The reason innovation comes at such anguish, is humans find it immensely difficult to generate random thought. Everything we think of is anchored in some way to a previous thought, we also have a psychological tendency to follow the status quo whenever faced with uncertainty, this inhibits our ability to think of new ways to accomplish a task. To limit our restraint to previous thinking, we must take lesson from the scientific method and constantly challenge the assumptions upon which we base our theories.

3. Search for meaningful connections

Innovation often occurs as a result of connecting two or more seemingly unrelated conceptual understandings, which when combined form something novel and useful. Think of the iPhone, which merged the phone and the computer; up until this point these two products where considered completely separate. The problem is we are limited in our ability to perform such connections by both the associative and cognitive limitations of the human brain. As the human brain cannot comprehend an unlimited amount of information, thus often does not possess the necessary complementary knowledge that can be combined to form this novel idea. Also, when both pieces of information are possessed a connection between the ideas is not always immediate. Thus, anything which improves our ability to find and connect two seemingly unrelated pieces of information, will increase our ability to innovate. This is a reason why teams can be so effective in a creative context, as the combined capacity of the group can overcome the cognitive and associative limitations of the individual. I shall expand more on this thought later in this article, but first I will address actions that can be taken to increase personal creativity.

To exemplify how our ability to imagine new concepts is constrained by our existing knowledge, I will step outside the realm of business and inside the world of mathematics. Euler’s identity is a ground-breaking find that links the trigonometric and exponential functions – two areas of mathematics that were previously thought to be unrelated – in the elegant equation e^iπ=1. The point I am trying to make is simply that nobody outside of mathematics would have come across this discovery and more specifically that as a prerequisite to the identity, Euler required a firm grasp of trigonometric and the exponential Taylor series. Hence, your ideas are grounded in your comprehension of related subjects; thus, to increase your creative capacity you must constantly be looking to educate yourself and increase your knowledge base.

The other sticking point on innovation occurs when necessary knowledge is possessed, but there is a failure to associate concepts. Often, this can be caused by hyper-localised thinking. Hence, when stuck on an idea it can be incredibly useful to stop what you are doing and engage in something completely unrelated. This forces the mind to think outside the confined realms which you have established, and since the mind works through association – even though you are not consciously engaging in solving the problem – all information you process will still be in relation to the problem. This can lead to the breakthrough that you are looking for, as you never know what might spark the trail of thought that will eventually bridge two distant parameters. Think of Isaac Newton developing his laws of gravitation after seeing an apple falling.

Another technique which has shown to have some merit is to sleep on a problem. If you are thinking about a problem before going to bed, it is likely to materialise in some manner of dream representation. As you are not constrained in the same rational manner whilst you dream, as you are when you are awake, it is entirely possible for the dream to surface a new insight that you did not consciously consider. It is even claimed that Thomas Edison devised a strategy to try and tap into this sleep associated creativity. Where he would hold a copper ball in his hand whilst going to bed; the idea being as he was drifting off and in this dream state, the ball would fall waking him up, so he could write down any ideas he had.

4. Factors influencing group creativity

We now move onto factors influencing creativity in a team environment. In order to make the most of the emergent property of a team – where the value obtained from whole is greater than the sum of its parts – the organisation culture must be one of support. Meaning each individuals’ ideas are encouraged, listened to, and dissected.

Let us imagine a scenario; you walk into a boardroom, which is occupied by your team and state a problem that needs solving, then open to the floor for any ideas. Person-1 states an initial idea, which is then immediately rebutted by Person-2 stating that the idea doesn’t work, they may even say something to the extent ‘we’ve tried that before and it failed’. Following this, the idea is dropped, and no further thought is applied to it. This is an all too common scenario, and what it does is suck the creativity out of the room. Not only does it set the precedent that not all ideas are valued, thus reduce the number of subsequent ideas that will be proposed, it also initiates a destructive approach to the examination of ideas. As both volume and outlook play a vital role in creativity, I will expand on these points further:

4.1 Choose creativity over destructivity

In the example above, what Person-2 fails to consider is that ideas do not come fully formed, they are built over incremental steps, hence their validity cannot be judged at first impression. This doesn’t mean ideas shouldn’t be criticised, but rather that judgement should be deferred until further examination. Each associated problem with a specific idea should be explicated, however, rather than these shortcomings being looked upon as proof of the idea’s inadequacy, the group should be tasked with finding options to overcome each of these problems. Then each of these solutions should be further examined for any weaknesses in an iterative process. Going through such an excavating process will lead to having a much better understanding of the problem at hand. Hence, even if the initial idea doesn’t give you a desired solution, it is still incredibly useful. Furthermore, in many cases even when the initial idea is discarded the lessons learnt in finding ways to overcome its obstacles prove invaluable when assessing subsequent ideas.

4.2 Volume drives creativity

It is as true for idea generation as it is for many other fields that you don’t know how to succeed until you know how to fail. This point was perfectly encapsulated by Thomas Edison when he stated ‘I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ This premise rings true with every great innovator; James Dyson had 5126 failed attempts before inventing the Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner, Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to Farewell to the arms, before producing one that he was satisfied with. This raises 3 key points; the first was best put by American scientist Linus Pauling who stated, ‘The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.’ The second is that you must not be afraid to fail. In order to innovate you will be working with a lot of uncertainty, and this will inevitably lead to failure. If not for this failure, you will have nothing to learn the lessons required to produce the idea that does work. This also means the work environment should not punish mistakes if these come out of a process of imaginative thinking; as if this is the case, workers will never be tempted to think of truly innovative ideas. The final lesson to be learnt is that innovation takes incredible hard work. By its nature innovation cannot be obvious, but the examples illustrated above put into perspective just how much effort goes into coming up with truly original work.

5. How to maximise creativity in the workplace

We have already established that creativity comes from diverse ideas being combined, the likelihood of this happening is far greater when team members can offer different perspectives. Thus, teams are most creative when they are formed of members representing diverse backgrounds, each of whom bring different approaches to thinking. In this same sense, having a team formed of similar thinkers contributes nothing to the creative process.

Ego is kryptonite to a team’s cohesivity; thus, you want to make the work environment as ego-free as possible. Far too often is it the case that group members will be adamant that their opinion is superior to the rest of the groups and be blind to anything that contradicts this. This can only be overcome if the organisation fosters an ethos which places the success of the team above the success of the individual. If this is paired with a group setting as previously highlighted – where every contribution is valued and assessed – it allows for a group dynamic where it doesn’t matter who comes up with an idea, all options are objectively ranked to determine the best course of action. It is also highly important that every group member trusts and respects every other member’s opinion. This allows for critical assessment and the passionate exchange of ideas without any animosity; as each individual is certain that there is no personal undertone to any of these exchanges, and is aware each group member is simply looking out for the collective good for the organisation.

The organisation should also be set up to give constant feedback on creative projects. This feedback should have no authority and purely be an opportunity to get an outside perspective. In such a system, employees would be encouraged to show work in an incomplete state to people who have not directly contributed towards it progress. This allows employees to learn of one another and promotes a culture of continual change and reinvention; all of which abets creativity within the organisation. Furthermore, such a review process increases the likelihood of problem recognition, meaning items overlooked by the group can be identified and addressed earlier, before additional work has been built on top of inaccurate premises. Such systems have proved to be extremely successful at creative institutes such as Disney and Pixar.

6. A useful exercise to strengthen creative thinking

As mentioned in the introduction creativity can be thought of as a muscle which increases in strength the more it is exercised. Hence, I have decided to end on a task that you can do whenever you have some free time to increase your creative aptitude:

Begin by imagining some sort of absurd proposition, next figure out a way you can make this initial proposition work. For example, suppose this initial proposition is a clothing brand that doesn’t design any clothes, how would you make this work?

Here’s a solution proposed by one of our interns here at Ladoop:

‘My initial inclination was to purchase other people’s designs. The way I would go about this, would be to run a competition where the general public could submit their garment designs for a chance to have their conceptions put into production and retailed. As well as attracting budding designers and allowing you to choose from numerous original designs, this initial campaign would also raise brand awareness, which due to its interactive nature would likely lead to higher levels of customer engagement. The competition participants would likely be fashion enthusiast and want to be designers, who do not have the resources to put into production their designs. They would then be given the opportunity to have their work recognised and would of course receive remuneration for their creative input.’

This is just a quick example that was conceptualised in 10 minutes, but I have included it in this article to give you better insight into how the exercise works. The task forces you to think in terms of how an idea could work, instead of why an idea won’t work, which inclines your mind to engage its creative reasoning. It also goes about explaining why you should give seemingly absurd ideas respect, because if they are reframed, often they can produce viable options. More importantly, every revolutionary idea was once considered absurd by the masses, so get into the habit of never dismissing anything as nonsensical; after all there’s no creative value in being cynical. This also reinforces the point that if you want to stimulate an environment which is truly creative, you must allow for the existence of divergent information; which is to say, you have to allow for seemingly irrelevant information to come in.

It is especially useful to play with such a thought experiment in the field you are currently involved in or the field you wish to get involved with. As, once you release these constraints, you can use the insight gained to improve your overall offering. This can be likened to a basketball player practicing with a smaller hoop to improve his shooting ability on the regulation size hoop during a real game.

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