Anti-Conventional Thinking (ACT)

by Jeffrey Baumgartner

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 favorite 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 organization 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 behavior 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.

Back End of Innovation Conference

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 generation 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 criticizing 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.

Creative Challenges

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 revolutionize 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 sub-challenges 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 criticize 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 analyze 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:

  1. Criticism is to focus on conventional ideas and boring ideas.
  2. Criticism will always be formulated politely and respectfully.
  3. Whenever an idea is criticized, 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 to improve 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:

  1. Frame a challenge that pushes you to think unconventionally
  2. Allow yourself to re-frame the challenge and introduce sub-challenges as you define the solution in your ideas.
  3. Reject conventional ideas. They are too easy.
  4. Criticize 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.

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Jeffrey BaumgartnerJeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of, makers of Jenni innovation process management software. He also edits Report 103, a popular eJournal on business innovation. Contact Jeffrey at or visit

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  1. Thank you for a fresh and different point of view, Jeffrey. What I do with my teams is a “worst idea competition” – a fun warm-up that help everyone “tune up” their inner censors to seek for the unconventional.

  2. It has become very fashionable nowadays to criticize “brainstorming”. The sad truth is that the majority of the arguments are coming from the experiences of bad facilitation. Unfortunately, more often than not, when people talk “brainstorming doesn’t work” they have little idea what brainstorming actually should be.
    First of all, brainstorming is just a technique, one of the many other techniques that could be used for ideation. And when looking for innovative ideas it is actually important to combine different techniques to ensure that you look at the challenge from different perspectives.
    You rightfully say that how you formulate the problem statement is of the utmost importance for the overall success of the process of looking for a innovative solution. And actually, this importance is addressed by Creative Problem Solving you mention. Exploring the situation, and coming up with the challenge statement that will ensure that the problem is addressed from the most innovative angle, is the first stage of CPS methodology.
    Looking for quantity of ideas is not the only rule of the brainstorming. Deliberately looking for NOVEL ideas is actually another rule. And it is facilitator’s function to ensure that both problem statement and ideas are addressed at the appropriate level of innovativeness. Don’t underestimate the facilitator’s role. There are many studies that demonstrate that the sessions run by a qualified facilitator produce not just more ideas, but more HIGH QUALITY ideas, than the sessions without a facilitator.
    Finally, it is important not to underestimate the quantity factor either. It is actually not the waste of time. Whether to include critique or not in the ideation process is the matter of discussion. There are techniques that involve critical appraisal of ideas while they are coming out, and some of those techniques proved to be very efficient. However the rule of suspending judgment has its value not only at the interpersonal level (that is to say “do not judge others’ ideas”) but it is even more important at the intrapersonal level (do not judge your own ideas). It might be actually much more productive allowing yourself to come up with 100 banal ideas if this will help to release your internal blocks and uncover 5 great ideas. However if you limit your thinking with the cognitive filter “I only want great innovative ideas” it may take you much more time to finally come up with those 5 great ideas. Being a “highly creative person” is something that can be developed by deliberate work. And one of the steps of this process if precisely working on your “fluency”, i.e. the ability to come up with MANY ideas, regardless whether they are great or not. “Originality” is just another trait of a creative person, and one doesn’t work without the other.

  3. Hi Ranen! Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll give that a try one of these days.

    Irina, Thank you very much for your thoughtful and thorough reply.

    I agree that the facilitator makes a huge difference in idea generation exercises and that is fashionable to criticise brainstorming. However, one reason why a good facilitator can get excellent results is because she will deviate in creative ways from brainstorming as defined by Alex Osborn.

    Anticonventional thinking (ACT) is very much a work in progress, and it needs to be tried out much more thoroughly by myself and others in order to prove whether it is a better approach for generating highly creative ideas than is Creative Problem Solving (CPS) or other methods. (The TRIZ people have been criticising ACT too!) Nevertheless, based on the underlying research of how people think, I believe it is. But we shall see.

    It is also important to stress that there is no ONE SINGLE best approach to collaborative idea generation/problem solving. Some techniques work better in some circumstances than others. Some facilitators are better with one approach than another. It is probably most important that you as the facilitator work with a methodology that you and your clients are comfortable with.

    Jeffrey Baumgartner

    • Hi Jerfrey,

      I totally agree that there is no single truth, and I am sure that combination of different methodologies, and, the most important, flexibility that underlies this combination, would render much better results than following just one straight line.

  4. Jeffrey – you are recommending ACT as opposed to CPS. You also say ACT is still a work in progress and needs to be tried out a lot more. CPS is based on over 60 years of solid research. What creativity measures have been done with ACT? I would like to investigate ACT more and see the foundational thinking and research behind its claim.

  5. In a small company that I worked for we would routinely arrive at nonstandard solutions using a simpler process, since we did not have the luxury of a facilitator. In fact, this could even be a one person process, although more makes it much better. The first step is to reach an accurate understanding of the desired results, without a description of the method. Then we ask and determine “what is the standard way?”. After defining the standard approach, our next question is “how else could we do it?” We may arrive at several alternative ways to do something. Next, we do a real-time evaluation of each process, with the intention of discovering “show stopper” types of problems. This is not a criticism stage, but rather a close examination stage. Sometimes we eliminate all of the “how else” concepts and need to go back and figure out some more ways. But if one concept does not show any problems, we go back and examine more closely how each aspect of the plan will meet specific requirements. If this examination does not find any new problems then we consider that we have a design worth putting on paper.
    Of course, this only works when we have a group that understands both the desired results and the technologies needed for the product, in other terms, engineers and technicians, not managers or MBAs. But it has allowed our small organization to have quite a few happy customers.

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