I’m sitting by the fire on this chilly early morning in Santa Barbara, enjoying a cup of coffee. I am reflecting on all the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been this year, and thinking about the meaning of it all. When my friends and family ask where I’m off to next, I tell them I’m “home for the holidays,” and this invariably brings a smile to their faces.
The truth is, though, I love what I get to do for a living. Love it so much that the grueling nature of air travel soon fades away, and the joy of sharing, learning and coaching remains. The common theme in all my travels this year is that you and I and everyone living today face challenges. And we all need ideas to meet those challenges.
Which is why, in this year’s final issue, I want to focus on some favorite techniques for keeping your “idea factory” operating at peak levels so you can continue to turn the challenges you face in your personal and professional life into solutions and fresh opportunities. Here they are:
1. Inspect your idea factory frequently.
Take a look at your Things to Do List; that’s one collection of your ideas right there. What does your list reveal about the types of ideas you’re working on just now? Are most of them tactical– pick up the dry cleaning, pay the bills, etc., or are there some big picture ideas on your radar as well? If your “big ideas list” is nonexistent, it may be time to tune in to your larger goals, your “bucket list,” to where you want to be one year, three years out, and to those that could become breakthroughs. Bottom line: start paying closer attention to all your ideas, regardless of category. And carve out time regularly to inspect, prioritize, sort, eliminate and retool your idea productivity.
2. Download ideas the moment they occur.
Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna told me about his personal process for gathering ideas. Whether attending board meetings, relaxing or conversing with colleagues, he takes along a moleskin idea notebook and jots down ideas as they occur. “You’re sitting there in that meeting, and something is said that relates to something else you’re thinking in some other area, and then your mind starts thinking about that. I’m always in this mode of looking for a new idea; or a better way of doing things.” This is one trait that innovators the world over have in common. They all pounce on ideas the moment they occur. They’re like vacuum cleaners sucking up ideas in every environment they are in. Bottom line: The mind is a great place for hatching ideas. It’s a lousy place for trying to remember them, so start aggressively downloading ideas wherever you are.
3. Identify when and where you do your best thinking.
One client, the largest mobile phone carrier in Bahrain, recently built a “creativity room” for people to use when they want to shift perspective, brainstorm and relax. Dr. Peter Chee, one of Asia’s leading executive coaches and president of Malaysia-based Institute of Training and Development, often gets his best ideas at 35,000 feet. He loves to look out at stunning cloud formations, and says they never fail to set off “endorphins of opportunity.” Our client surveys reveal that fifteen to twenty percent of the adult population hatches some of their best ideas in the middle of the night. Taking a shower or driving is another frequent idea-popper. If there’s a time of day when you do your best thinking, plan for it. If there’s a particular spot in your home or office that gets your creative juices flowing —be it the kitchen table or the bathtub or an obscure conference room– set aside time to sit quietly in that space, alone and free of noise and distraction.
4. Study the personal best practices of leading innovators.
Since the early ‘80s, I’ve been studying the habits of top innovators and have been fortunate to part of a small group of people who see innovation not as a thing but as a field worthy of study. The boil down of all my research and practical experience is that society is gradually realizing that being skillful at innovation is like being skillful in any other field of endeavor. There’s growing recognition that innovators are made, not born. Reading about how leading innovators go about solving problems will invariably set off your creative juices. The veterans know that to have a good idea, you’ve got to have lots of them. Experimentation is key; that “failure” is inevitable, that it’s a numbers game. There’s got to be humility mixed with courage and persistence. Wayne Silby, founder of Thee Calvert Group, and originator of the financial services industry’s first social investment fund, once told me: “I spend a lot of my time making sure people recognize that I come up with ideas, that some of them are good. And most of them are bad. What we have to do together as a management team is to sort out the good ones from the bad ones.”
5. Manage your mental environment.
Harvard’s Teresa Amabile is famous for her studies of creativity in the workplace. Her research shows that people are most likely to have new ideas on days when we feel happy, and that emotional upset is a creativity killer. “Of all the events that engage people at work,” reports Amabile, “the single most important driver by far is not bonuses or rewards, but simply feelings that ‘I’m making progress’ in the projects I’m working on.” When we’re around negative people, or dealing with situations fraught with negative emotion, creativity is blocked. So take charge of your mental environment: avoid negative people as much as possible, or meet with them later in the day. Regroup from such encounters and make an effort to be with people in your life that stimulate your thinking.
6. Pay attention to the happy accidents in your life.
One way to hatch brilliant ideas is simply to pay more attention to seredipity in your life. When IBM researcher Jeannette Garcia made a mixing error in her lab earlier this year, she returned to find a hard white plastic that has incredible new properties. Garcia had inadvertently discovered what experts are calling a “new family of advanced materials” that are light and strong and can be easily reformed to make products recyclable. A surprisingly large number of inventions are the result of “happy accidents” including velcro, Nutrasweet, Viagra, 3M’s Scotchgaard, FedEx, and many others. But if we’re not paying attention, we can get so busy feeding the problems that we overlook these unexpected opportunities. What are the happy accidents in your life? For example: You chat with a taxi driver about some project you’re working on, and voila, out pops an idea. You see data that shows surprisingly strong sales of a particular product: that too is a happy accident.
7. Look for ideas by studying problems
In the mid-1980s, I interviewed the legendary Bill Gore, founder of W.L. Gore and Associates, and consistently one of the most innovative companies in the world. Bill told me about his favorite method of generating ideas. “I walk through the plant and I see a piece of equipment that’s being built in the shop,” Gore explained. “I inquire about how it’s designed. And I scratch my head and say, ‘You know, it would be so much easier, so much better if it could be done this way instead of that way. Why don’t we do it that way?’” Gore’s manner of managing by walking around asking questions might seem a bit heavy-handed, but his people loved him because he took an interest and wasn’t afraid to challenge them. Ideas come from studying problems and looking for the better way to solve them. Ego has no place in the formula. Take advantage of ideas that already exist. Ask yourself how they might be combined in new ways in your field. What is the unmet need? Where is the market inefficiency? Ask yourself what people might want if it were available.
8. Take a Doug day.
Doug Greene is founder of New Hope Natural Media, a pioneer in the natural and organic foods industry. Here’s how he described the method of getting ideas to me in an interview: “Once a month I schedule what I refer to as a Doug Day. I create a block of time where I have absolutely nothing to do: no appointments. I’ll go to a different environment. I’ll sit and draw or whatever my first instincts are to do. I think about my team. I think about my level of passion and what’s going on with my energy level. I think about opportunities. And I have to say that if I hadn’t taken those Doug Days since I started the company, I wouldn’t have had nearly the success that we’ve enjoyed, and I wouldn’t have had the quality of life.”
Imagine how refreshed and rejuvenated you would feel, and how many ideas you might come up with, if you allowed yourself to take a Doug Day.
Everybody has ideas. But only a few know how to keep their idea factories fortified to churn out a wealth of them on a consistent basis, when and where needed, even when the heat is on.
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Robert B. Tucker is the President of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group. He is a speaker, seminar leader and an expert in the management of innovation and assisting companies in accelerating ideas to market.