ICR News: March 2016 Meeting Highlights

Turn Your Ideas into Action with Innovative Thinking

By Shayna Keyles

Have you ever wondered how creativity works? Did you ever stop to think about why some people are always coming up with new ideas while others return to the same principles over and over again? Do you ever try to break out of old habits and approach things from a fresh angle in hopes of reaching a breakthrough?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re in good company. Recently, the Independent Communicators’ Roundtable met up at Oakland’s Impact Hub to listen to executive coach Tony Jimenez speak about innovation and how creative thinking can be used to turn your ideas into action.

Tony was once employed as a creativity coach by Chevron and now teaches courses on creativity to leaders and innovators across the globe. As a coach, Tony doesn’t give solutions to problems, but instead he helps influence thinking styles so that people can experience their own creativity.

Tony Jimenez teaches the ICR about creativity processes. Photo by Jeff Rader.

Tony Jimenez teaches the ICR about creativity processes. Photo by Jeff Rader.

Different Ways to Be Creative

One way to think about creativity is as a combination of ideas into something new. For creativity to flourish, innovators must break away from rigid routines and dive into new realms of thinking. Fortunately, there are as many different methods of experiencing creativity as there are creative ideas. (Tony often uses the word “innovation” instead of “creativity” because, according to his experience, engineers respond better to the more technical-sounding “innovation” than they do to “creativity”.)

Positive Emotions Help Trigger Creativity

People tend to look to creativity to seek solutions or “the next big thing”. Sometimes, however, the pressure to create quickly and to create successfully can lead to stress and anxiety, which actually stifles the creative process. To combat this negativity, Tony suggests using a cache of positivity to help spur innovation.

We heard an example of a CEO who wanted to figure out how to increase his company’s net yearly earnings from $100k to $300k but was stuck in a mental rut. He was frustrated and couldn’t move past the same stale ideas.

To help him think of something new, Tony pulled out his “creativity file”, which happened to contain a folder full of country-western song titles. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, you can purchase albums listing such gems as “Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life” and “I Changed My Oil; She Changed My Life.”

The CEO spent a good 15 minutes browsing these song titles, laughing all the while, before he looked back over his project sheets. Suddenly, he was thinking of solutions that had previously eluded him. Distracting himself with laughter had allowed him to adjust his thinking and start innovating.

Creativity Stems from the Need to Adapt

Often, we seek creative solutions when forced to adjust to change. It’s impossible to fall back on the same tired routines when they no longer exist.

Tony learned this the hard way when he lost his right arm in a car accident. His right arm had been his dominant arm; he wrote, illustrated, and conveyed all of his ideas with his right arm. After the accident, he had to compensate.

He took his best shot at becoming a lefty, and though he was able to start writing rather well, his illustrations never achieved their previous luster. So Tony had to figure out a creative way to draw without actually drawing.

Tony learned how to become an expert visualizer — he can now see exactly what he wants to draw and describe his drawings to a designer, who then illustrates for him. He uses this newfound skill, not just for making his own drawings, but for describing creative processes and idea-generating techniques to others.

Think as a Group to Find New Ideas

If you have trouble coming up with your own creative outlets, try working in a group. Group thinking is an excellent way to use feedback to build up people and ideas.

Pixar Studios implements a practice called “plussing”, where designers and engineers get together to brainstorm and say “yes” to every single idea. People must “bite their tongues until they bleed” — or, in other words, only say positive things about other ideas. Group members are asked to suspend their voices of judgment and instead act as “angel advocates”, constantly suggesting how each idea presented could be made better.  

Research suggests that taking your group meetings into a comfortable and nonrestrictive environment can help stimulate creative thinking. Consider bringing your team together for a walking meeting to charge up your endorphins, or gather in a well-decorated room to trigger visual thinking.

Look into Nature for Inspiration

Many revolutionary ideas were inspired by nature and by putting together odd or unusual combinations. This practice of problem solving by combining unlike parts, called synectics,

has been practiced for centuries and has allowed myriad innovations to take root and grow.

Pringles, those stackable potato chips, were inspired by wet leaves. No, not the flavor: the packaging designers saw how leaves clung to each other on the ground and thought that they could design a sleek, space-saving package using the same design principle.

Scientists have long looked to animals for inspiration. Bats, who communicate using echolocation, were the living prototype for RADAR. Insects and reptiles were the basis for the camouflage clothing and weaponry. Now, researchers are looking at deep-sea creatures to figure out how divers can avoid getting the bends at extreme depths.

Synectics can be applied successfully with clients or with companies. Think of Netflix, which broke into a field by combining movies with mail; or Facebook, which started out by combining the idea of a school yearbook with a search engine; or GrubHub, which combined a delivery service with a mall food court. How can you combine two unlike concepts to create something new?

How to Nurture Ideas

Once you come up with an idea, it’s important to nurse it from infancy to adulthood. Many people are great at brainstorming; they come up with a list of creative and exciting concepts but then promptly neglect, belittle, or forget what they’ve come up with. Here are a few tips to help you sustain an idea once it’s been established.

Visualize the Concept

Pictures make us think differently. Try to sketch out what you’ve come up with so you can clearly see all of its component parts. Even writing down thoughts and viewing words can help you gain insights into an idea. Have you ever seen the way design firms use sticky notes to brainstorm a prototype? It’s not just for decoration: giving an idea a physical form, no matter what it looks like, is an essential step towards giving an idea a life.

Follow Up on Your Ideas

Countless ideas stagnate in sketchbooks and on discarded note cards because their originators forgot to follow up. After you sketch or write down your idea, think about it in more concrete terms. Start making a plan. Think about:

  • What tools or services do you need to implement your idea?
  • How long will it take?
  • Do you need a team or can you do it solo? 

Start laying out the steps you’ll need to take to make your idea a reality, or like a bubble, your idea will pop and fade away.

Replace Outdated Concepts

If your “to-do list” is cluttered with old ideas, routines, and theories, try to do some spring cleaning. It’s more difficult to get old ideas out than to get new ideas in, so take some time to evaluate your habits and determine what might prevent your new ideas from being achieved.

Suspend All Judgment

When you’re first nurturing an idea, remove the word “no” from your vocabulary. You’ll want to do everything you can to encourage your idea, to build it up until it becomes an undestroyable, impenetrable force. Remember: big ideas don’t need to be complete, but they do need to have momentum.

Tony suggests that you treat every idea like a baby. As a parent, you will do everything in your power to see that baby grow and succeed — and you would never step on your baby. Likewise, you should never step on your ideas.  Support their twists and turns, and enthusiastically encourage their growth spurts. Let them flourish.

Hone In on Innovative Habits

If you want to see your ideas, not just make it to the next day, but make it to the next stage, you’ll have to act like the most innovative of innovators.

Innovators prioritize opportunity over routines and problems. Instead of focusing on how to fix what’s wrong or how to act within the confines of existing hierarchies and orthodoxies, successful innovators are driven by visions of solutions and change. They want to make things good, not necessarily eliminate things that are bad.

So how do creative people figure out the difference between an opportunity and a problem?

For innovation’s sake, we can define an opportunity as any activity that can move an idea forward. Here are a few examples of opportunities:

  • Develop yourself or your team
  • Develop a product or a service
  • Improve customer delight
  • Achieve your goals

Routines, on the other hand, are activities that must be done but don’t necessarily move a process forward, and problems are activities that wind up moving you backwards:

  • Reports and check-in meetings are routines
  • Crises and roadblocks are problems

Innovators who actively seek opportunities will actively seek out opportunity. They will reframe problems and routines in order to create, develop, improve, and achieve.

Rowan Gibson, known as “Mr. Innovation”, identified four sources for identifying opportunity.

    1. Challenging Orthodoxies
      Innovators can challenge an organization’s deeply held assumptions and beliefs to find opportunity. For example, team leaders can review and update outdated patterns and strategies to create more efficient processes or useful new systems that meet the needs of new markets.
    2. Harnessing Trends
      Observe the way markets change and demand shifts to take advantage of emerging trends. Ideas have evolved through trend-watching for years: look, for example, at how LinkedIn evolved from social networks like MySpace, which in turn evolved from chat services like AOL.
    3. Leveraging ResourcesUse your team members and your organization’s existing assets to create new products and services. Take advantage of all existing support systems.
    4. Understanding Needs
      Listen to your customers to determine what they need most. Take inspiration directly from their requests and reviews. Use design thinking processes to identify with your ideal audience and create a product suited directly to their needs.
Moving Forward

Tony left us with sage wisdom about how to harness creativity for good: “Predicting the future is simply creating it.” To make a better tomorrow, to make better products, to make better decisions for yourself and for your clients, embrace the innovative practices and start churning out new ideas. See your thoughts through to completion by breaking out of stagnant routines and leveraging the power of positivity. Seek out opportunities in unexpected places and let others influence your thinking.

Your creative process is as effective as what you put into it. What do you use to spur innovation? Do you walk to energize your mind? Does a deadline get your brain buzzing? Do you seek inspiration from your dreams? Let us know, and in the meantime, keep creating.

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