We had learned many theories or thinking processes in the creativity and innovation field. However, most of them are illustrated by a more western point of view. The book- Creativity and Tao- is inducing creativity through the Chinese philosophy-Tao, including some thinking mentioned in the Book of Chang, aks I-Ching. That offers people who are more familiar with Chinese culture and thinking or people who don’t tent to learn things systematically another channel to see what’s creativity and how to increase creativity during daily life.
Brainstorming is the very basic workhorse of creative thinking. It’s been around for almost 60 years, and I don’t even remember when I haven’t yet heard of it, but it doesn’t mean that one cannot find new techniques which shake things up and make it more fresh and more valuable.
Recently I started using two ideas, new and insightful to me, that changed my thinking and ideas a lot. Both of them is somewhat turning things upside down.
The weirdest solution
This one I heard last year when listening to Phil McKinney’s talk for the 2010 StartupBus crew. When he’s brainstorming with a team for example for a new product idea (he was running the Innovation Program Office at HP), after they run out of things to add to the board, he asked which idea was the weirdest or worst. Then he took of everything else, and developed that particular one.
As people say, the first half a dozen or even dozen ideas during brainstorming are the ones that are really conventional, not very creative, the ones that others are likely to come up as well. The weirdest idea is usually one that people has the biggest subconscious resistance, because it’s the furthest from their comfort zone. Thus putting the brainstorming participants in an uncomfortable situation, surprising them, and confining the scope (limitations boost creativity), they can come up with things that they would unlikely find if they just think about the ideas that they find good.
This one I came across while reading Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community. The setting is that after the initial ideas, the question is posed: what would make it the worst the thing that we are trying to improve? We are brainstorming for a better cellphone? What would make it absolutely terrible? Are we thinking of improving our event? What would make it the most awful event ever? Once that is sketched out, go to all of these ideas, and turn them around – how could we avoid all of these things?
The more I think about this technique, the more genius it is, for certain things. It is really naturally suited for the “improvement”-like brainstormings, for other types (e.g. articles for this blog) it is not really applicable.
Where it would really shine, though, is brainstorming about improving something with a crowd whose opinion I don’t know well. It is a perfect way to see what things make people worried about a particular thing. How to improve our laboratory or work environment? Ask people what would make this is the worst lab or office ever. Very soon you’d have a lot of suggestions that probably you wouldn’t have thought normally, because those are things which are normal or even invisible to you. Also in this case, all the ideas are usable, don’t have to throw away the first dozen or so “common” suggestions – those are the ones to fix in the very first step.
An additional advantage is that people love to complain, it is likely to be easier to get them contribute with negative things, and once they got going, the momentum should carry them over on the positive ideation side as well.
So, what is your technique?
When people ask me about what do I want to do “when I grow up”, where my career is headed, or what do I want to achieve, it surprises me that I cannot answer these questions to their – or even my own – satisfaction. It’s not that I don’t have a direction, just that maybe I don’t have a goal that is as clear as the Sun on the sky, I didn’t lay out goalposts 5-10-20 years in the future that I want to reach.
On the other hand, I have no problem telling them about the projects I’m working on, and indeed, these days there are more and more things to tell. I can tell them how with a few friends we got Ignite Taipei going last year, an event that became such a melting pot of creativity and connections between different ideas and people.
I can tell them how I was hungry for more chatting, once without holding back on the detailed discussion about tech, so booked a restaurant to have a Geek Dinner, which was a full house and going to do it again soon.
Or I can tell them about putting up a global movie festival, Future Shorts, just next week, mainly because I wanted to see those movies and I know a lot of my friends would be interested as well (and maybe some others as well).
Maybe would even tell them about the art exhibition, the photowalk, the cafe interviews I’m planning in the future….
Of course some people just asked me in return, how do you have so much time? Others, so how about your daytime work? These really puzzled me. I’m a scientific researcher at the top research institute in Taiwan, why do I can’t stop spending my time and effort on these many other things?
For many people this might not be a new thing, for me it certainly was a revelation: a person is not just one job – instead everything that he or she does is the person. Maybe the right question is to ask is what do all these side projects mean? In the day job one often does not have too many different choices, but in their side projects their interest shine as clear as nowhere else. That’s where I can make choices completely free, and pursue those ones that come naturally. The key to where I’m headed is most likely hidden within those projects, and if anything, I should be doing more of them not less. What I start will guide me to actually understand: what is it that I have started? And that’s something that I can finally build on.
I guess from now on if I ever see someone bored, or killing time waiting for something to happen to their lives, I will try to get them to start something. Start anything. They will know afterwards much better what were they waiting for.
And if you have a side project, I’d love to see and hear about it.
The more I’m thinking about limitations, the more I learn to love them…
This might not sound very logical, certainly it didn’t for a very long time, but I hear fragments of wisdom from many sources that add up to this, and have experience that reinforces it at every step of the way.
Limits are everywhere around us, we cannot do everything we want, otherwise the world would be a very different place. Most of these limits are fought with, however, and since so many of them are non-negotiable, that fight is futile, a waste of precious energy and time. On the other hand, limitations can drive your thinking and fire up your creativity.
Imagine a situation where you are expected to come up with ideas, like “what new product should the company develop?” or “write a novel”, or even “what to have for dinner?” If this is all the information you have (nothing, just a general direction), then I would love to see how much progress one would make in a quarter of an hour… I bet not that much, it’s like drifting in a space.
On the other hand, when you start setting limits, your brain goes into problem solving mode and suddenly there’s the missing inspiration. “How would you make an existing product cost half as much?”, “you have 30 days to write a 50000 word novel, what would it be about?”, “where to eat which were I haven’t been yet, is nearby and has wifi so I can hang out and write blogposts later?” These limits give directions and the brain loves problem solving. Soon enough this process becomes indistinguishable from playing a game or a puzzle.
Actually, dealing with limitations is everywhere in our lives even if we don’t necessarily realize them.
I do quite a bit of programming every day, and it is also dealing with limitations: languages, APIs frameworks set boundaries on what can be expressed and how. I often have to find a different solutions, e.g. Facebook doesn’t make certain functions available for developers so my original idea (and the next 20 iterations) don’t work, but in the end there will be one that does and I guarantee you it will be better than the ones before that.
Just been to watch Moneyball yesterday, the true story of a baseball team that had to become creative after it ended up being without good players and without money. They innovated around the problem, disrupted the system, and while they haven’t necessarily achieve something they wanted, but reached things they couldn’t imagine before.
Sports in general are an example of this. Could certain football (soccer) teams look like magicians with the ball if they were allowed to do anything they want? They have to think how work within the limitations of the rules and that’s how they can come up with new ways of play that surprises and delights.
I do like to watch some good e-sports, and Day is one of the most amazing commentator of StarCraft 2 games. He runs a (almost) daily podcast, and every Monday is Funday Monday, where he sets up challenges for people, to play with certain (often insane) handicaps. What comes out of it? People hate to lose so much that they come up with crazy strategies, that the opponent is almost always completely caught by surprise and suspects cheating instead of creativity. I still cannot stop laughing when I remember the games of this episode….
Been taking part in NaNoWriMo, which is about writing a 50000 word novel in 30 days. That is a tall order. How people became more creative there? Like the awesome folks who run NaNoWordsprints: for a big part of the day, they post challenges that other writers can take up, like this one: “[while writing in the next 15 minutes] include the phrase “My food is problematic” (BP for knowing where it’s from) OR an epic battle for something very small.” Limits you? Indeed! Makes your imagination take off? No doubt.
It’s all in the wrist
Once you are in the mindset, there’s no going back. Where others see barriers, you can see another chance to do something different from everyone. And that’s one sure way to make life really awesome. 😉