It has often been said that ideas are a dime a dozen. As a creative person, you know that is not true. Ideas are worth far less than that! Indeed, if I could exchange a dozen ideas for a dime, I would be filthy rich now. At the time of writing this, I am definitely not filthy rich.
In fact, an individual idea is almost worthless.
The Cult of Ideas
Unfortunately, in the world of creativity, especially business creativity, The Cult of the Idea has become a powerful force. The Cult of the Ideas believes that the idea is everything; the end product of creativity and measurable innovation. It is a seductive cult because it only demands ideas, which are easy, and not implementation, which is more challenging.
As far as the cult of ideas is concerned, if your brainstorm results in 100 ideas, you can pat yourself on the back and say you’ve done a jolly good job innovating. If your corporate suggestion scheme software has 50,000 ideas in the database, you can dance of joy and claim that your company must be the most innovative in the world!
However, there are two problems here. Firstly, ideas do less than nothing for the bottom line. Indeed, in the corporate environment, ideas cost money. It takes time to hold brainstorms. It takes time to collect ideas. It takes time to evaluate ideas. If those ideas are not generating income, they are a waste of resources. This is an unfortunate situation that The Cult of Ideas prefers to ignore.
Cults can be that way!
Ideas are rather like bricks. Each one is largely useless. But cement them together in the right way, and they can collectively become a wall, a house, a castle. Likewise, individual ideas on their own are largely useless. But you can use them to build a creative vision that starts to have value.
Think about it. Guernica is one of Pablo Picasso’s most creative, powerful and moving paintings. It depicts the tragedies of war and, in particular, the suffering of individual civilians caught in the middle of the war. This masterpiece did not come from a single idea. Rather it came from a complex creative vision.
Steve Jobs did not merely have an idea for the iPod. He had a vision of a sleek and sophisticated digital music player. And his vision did not stop there. He continued building upon it, later developing the iPhone and the iPad.
Leo Tolstoy did not merely have an idea in order to write a book about war. He built up in his mind a massive and complex creative vision for an epic and massive novel: War and Peace.
Building a Vision
Most creative tools and methods involve generating a large number of ideas in hopes that one is somehow viable. This is why such tools are not very good at enhancing your creativity. Generating dozen of little, unrelated ideas will not get you anywhere creative. This is why artists, musicians and authors do not do traditional brainstorms. Instead, they try out ideas in their heads – or share them in a group. If an idea is too boring or not viable, it is rejected and a new idea is tested. If it seems creative and viable, they build upon it by adding additional little ideas.
This is what you need to do when you have a transcendental situation (a situation in which you want to take creative action). Once you have come to understand the situation deeply through meditation, consideration and questioning, you probably already have some ideas about the potential action you might take.
Now, let’s play with those ideas. Can they be combined together to build a bigger idea or initial concept? If so, work with that. If not, which are the most conventional ideas? Dispose of them immediately and focus on the less conventional and more creative ideas. In particular aim for outrageous, unconventional and zany ideas. After all, the purpose of cosmic creativity is not to be boring and conventional, but to be creative! Boring ideas are not creative and you should not waste your time with them.
Once you have a creative idea that works, build upon it. Add more ideas. Make it bigger, more creative, more insane!
As you do this, invite your inner provocateur to push your thinking even further. Your provocateur can tell you that your ideas are not crazy enough, that your solution is too obvious, that you can do better. She can question your assumptions and suggest you bring unrelated notions into your vision-building.
Very possibly, as you build your vision, you will occasionally see flaws in the vision. If so, address those flaws now. Backtrack if need be and remove ideas that do not work. If the vision starts to seem hopeless, don’t worry. Discard the vision and start again. Creative people do this all the time. Discarding a boring or non-viable vision in order to build a better, more creative one is not failure. It is being creative!
Keep at it. If possible, allow yourself a couple of days to think about and further develop your vision. It may be that your vision will never seem complete to you. But, once it is a comprehensive, creative vision you can stop building and move towards taking action. We will see how to do that in the next section of this book/series of articles.
For instance, let us imagine that you are the director of product development for a company that makes high quality sausages with organic, free-range meat. You are trying to come up with a new product.
You start to think about pork sausages, but that is rather boring. Most sausages are made of pork and you company already has over 20 different kinds of pork sausage.
You think about spicing and ethnic flavours. That is a little more interesting than pork, but not much. Most of your competitors are coming up with various spiced and ethnic-food flavoured sausages. Your company also has some such products on the market and they do not sell particularly well.
Then your provocateur reminds you of the fundamental assumption behind all of your company’s products: the use of meat.
So, you play with the idea of vegetarian sausages. At first, the idea seems stupid. After all, your customers buy your products because of the quality meat from which they are made. But, often very creative ideas first seem stupid, so play with the idea more.
In time, you realise there are two positive points to your initial concept. Firstly, many of the families who buy and trust your products have vegetarian members – such as your own teenage daughter. Meat eating buyers of your product may appreciate vegetarian options for family members who do not eat meat.
Secondly, you have learned from your daughter that most vegetarian sausages do not taste very good. You suspect this is because they are made by vegetarian food experts rather than sausage experts. If you could apply your company’s expertise in sausage making to a quality vegetarian product, you might have a real hit.
With this in mind, you start thinking about ingredients and flavourings. Your initially consider a tofu and egg based product, but as you develop the vision, you realise the texture will never be suitable, so you discard the vision and start with a new vision using nuts and beans. Eventually, you have a comprehensive vision that cannot be developed further in your head. You share your vision with colleagues in the product development division. Initially, they are sceptical – this is often the case with very creative ideas: people do not initially like them. Fortunately, you persevere and convince them. They start to experiment with ingredients and soon you develop a really great vegetarian sausage.
As you can see, by rejecting boring ideas and non-viable ideas; by pushing your mind further and listening to your provocateur you were able to come up with a creative vision for a radical new product – at least in terms of your company’s usual product line.
Is this not a better result than a list of 100 or even 50,000 undeveloped ideas?
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Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.