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How to Blow Minds, Rock Worlds, and Generate Truly Innovative Ideas

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Callahan Creek Creative Director and Creative Boot Camp author Stefan Mumaw explores the genesis of truly innovative ideas and lays down the creative process so that you can generate more of them for yourself.

In 1994, a retired ad exec named Trevor Fields was introduced to a problem. On a visit to South Africa, he was struck by the lengths some members of households had to endure to bring clean water back to their communities, frequently traveling for large portions of the day and carrying back up to 40 gallons of water at a time. Fields saw the need for an innovative solution. While he could have explored improving the often-contaminated hand pumps that were used to pull water from boreholes or investigated travel options to lighten the burden of the journey, he threw away convention and started from scratch. The question wasn’t how to better the solution but how to change the problem entirely.

Fields invented The PlayPump, a water pumping system that attached an underground water pump to a playground merry-go-round. The more children play on the merry-go-round, the more water is pumped into a storage tank accessible by everyone in the community.

This is an example of innovative thinking and it represents the type of ideas many of us are asked to generate. While the problems we are asked to solve may be less humanitarian, the need for innovative thinking remains. We want to generate monster ideas that change the way people perceive a product, service, process, or industry. But true innovation is difficult to achieve because the process to get there is often doomed from the start. As creatives, we fail to begin with the one thing we need to generate ideas that could lead to real innovation:

An Innovation-Ready Problem

Imagine if I asked you to create the ultimate desk. Money is no object, you don’t have to know how to build it or if it can even be built at all. All you have to do is design it. Where would you start? If you’re like 99% of the people who receive this creative exercise, you start with a tabletop. It may be in any number of shapes, sizes, configurations, or environments, but almost everyone starts with a writing surface.

Why?

Because that’s what you know a desk to be. When I use the word ‘desk,’ you envision what you know to be a desk: an elevated tabletop in a space to work. But our definition of a workspace has changed in the last 20 years. The term desk originated from the Latin word desca, which means “to write on.” The traditional desk was an instrument at which to sit and write. When was the last time you sat and wrote a letter with a pen or pencil? Ask anyone born in the Internet Age to act out ‘writing a letter’ and they’ll hold out their palms to the floor and wiggle their fingers as if they’re typing. If they’re younger than ten years old they may even mimic pecking with just their thumbs into a handheld device. An effective workstation should consider how we, as a society, work now, not how we worked when the primary purpose of a desk was a surface on which to write. Instead, we start with what we already know and we attach improvements. Unfortunately, this is what has taken the place of true innovation in our culture.

We have become a society of attachers. Instead of truly solving from scratch, we start with the minimum of previous solutions and we attach improvements. Our ultimate desks may have TVs, beverage stations, masseuses, and pools, but they start with a tabletop, the bare minimum of what we know a desk to be, and we begin to attach. There’s nothing wrong with improvement, don’t get me wrong. But your goal isn’t improvement, your goal is innovation and that requires throwing away what you already know and reconditioning the problem to be innovation-ready.

An innovation-ready problem is one that is stripped of preconception and poses the core need. If you are asked to design the ultimate desk, the question you may often answer is “What can I add to a desk to make it awesome?” The innovation-ready problem, however, is “What is the purpose of a desk today?” When you start with an innovation-ready question, you open the possibilities.

I gave the Ultimate Desk exercise to a group of design students at a design conference a few years back. One of the groups was from an engineering school. When I asked groups to share their designs, this group of engineering students described a very different kind of “desk.” They started by inserting the worker into a giant, clear, plastic ball that was submerged in water and spun at a high rate of speed. The energy that was created from the ball spinning in the water powered all of the electronic equipment in the ball. There were strategically placed gravity sensors in the ball that allowed the occupant to float and hover in the ball, sort of like Jodie Foster in the movie Contact. From there, they could control any of the devices in the ball with ocular sensors and mind control.

Now, it’s clear that this is beyond a feasible build. This breaks about a dozen laws of physics and multiple laws of office etiquette, but let me ask you a question: Wouldn’t you rather start with ideas that are in this space than ideas that simply attach TVs to desktops and hide refrigerators in file cabinets? While much of their solution is fantasy, there are some aspects that, reined in a bit, could be formed into innovative ideas. They are certainly closer to true innovation than any simple improvement could offer.

They got there by stripping away the parts of the problem that already suggested a solution, throwing away what they knew and asking the innovation-ready question. Can you train yourself to do the same thing? The good news is yes, you can. Here’s how:

Start at the Start

As I mentioned earlier, to generate innovative ideas, you have to start with innovation-ready problems. This is done at the start of the process. In the Ultimate Desk exercise, there is a cap on the innovative quality of the available ideas that could be applied if you start with a tabletop. By doing so, you have assigned a restriction that will actually inhibit innovative thought. There must be a problem to solve but that problem must be defined from the beginning to allow for innovative solutions.

In 2010, Jack Dorsey watched as his former boss and good friend Jim McKelvey lost a sale for his hand-blown glass because he couldn’t accept credit cards. Instead of solving the problem, “How can Jim’s business be tooled to accept credit cards?” he set out to solve the innovation-ready problem: “How can Jim accept credit cards with what he has?” The innovation that resulted has altered the mobile payment landscape: Square. The device is a small, square cardreader that plugs into your smartphone’s headphone jack and provides a mechanism to accept credit card payments anywhere. By removing the implied solutions, Dorsey created an innovation-ready question at the very beginning of the process.

Forget What You Know

Creating an innovation-ready problem requires you to do something that seems impossible: forget what you know. One of the greatest obstacles to true innovation is what we have already solved. Every problem has been solved in some capacity and those solutions cloud our ability to start from scratch. It often seems wasteful to throw aside what we have already learned about a problem in an effort to solve it again but innovation, by its nature, requires approaching a problem without predetermined solutions in mind.

In the foyer at ad giant Wieden+Kennedy’s London office is a mannequin with a blender for a head carrying a briefcase with the words “Walk in stupid every morning” written on the side. The sentiment is clear: Don’t bring preconceived ideas to the table. Every problem they solve is meant to be solved from scratch, which means starting every problem with its current purpose. As you develop the innovation-ready problem to be solved, ask yourself, “How does today matter?” Every problem can be filtered through the lens of today.

Pull Back vs. Push Forward

Once we have our innovation-ready problem formed, we can start generating ideas to solve it. But what does an innovative solution look like? It usually starts with a solution that has to be pulled back rather than a solution that has to be pushed forward.

We spend most of our professional time generating ideas for approvals rather than solutions. From our boss’ approval to the client’s approval, most of the ideas we generate are meant to pass some form of approval process. Spend any time within this process and it is easy to see how our ideas can be inadvertently soften as we begin to understand what it takes to get approval. To reach innovative status, most of the ideas we generate need to be pushed forward into innovative territory. The solutions we create are just that, solutions. They are relevant in that they solve the problem, they just do so with a low level of novelty. To up the novelty ratio, work to generate ideas that need to be pulled back rather than pushed forward.

The absurd is a strangely suitable place to start generating innovative ideas. We were once asked to create a web video for a tennis-related client that could have the potential to go viral. “Viral” is one of those characteristics that we, as makers, can’t control but we do have a basic understanding of the kind of videos that people share. This is usually a space that corporate America is uncomfortable playing within. So we had to walk a fine line between sharable and inappropriate.

The brainstorm session began when one of the participant offered up “naked tennis guy,” who would challenge unsuspecting citizens to tennis matches across busy streets. Clearly, our client wasn’t going to buy off on naked tennis guy despite the obvious sharable aspect. But this absurd beginning, one that required us to pull the idea back rather than push it forward, ended up as “oddly dressed tennis guy” and the resulting video was a big hit. We could have started with a talking head waxing poetic about tennis but no one would have shared that. It would need to be pushed forward to be viable. Naked tennis guy, however, provided the fertile ground for innovation.

Be Willing to Fail

Innovative ideas, by their nature, are untried. They have no established ROI, they are new. New is risky, new is dangerous. This is why innovation is such a touchy subject with businesses. They want the reward but don’t want to inherit the risk. You can’t have innovation without risk, which means you can’t have innovation without failure. If you are failure-adverse, innovation is not for you. But if you can tolerate risk, if you can swallow failure and get back on the horse, you are primed for innovative ideas.

Failure is a taboo topic in American business culture. We don’t accept failure well. The strange thing is that we, as individuals, are typically OK with failure. We don’t mind failing if there are no consequences to failing. Therein lies the rub. It’s not failure that we are afraid of; it’s the consequence of failure that gets us. So to offset this fear, we have to insert small doses of risk into our process and ratchet up the failure possibility each new idea we create.

If innovation is your goal, you will experience failure. It is inevitable. Accept this and plan for it. Fail early in the process and the consequences will be lessened. Don’t fall in love with any single solution but rather the process of solving so that you can build up the courage to hit it again each time you fail. When you fail, announce your failures publicly. This reduces the stigma and reminds you that failure is a part of innovation. There isn’t a single innovation that you will ever experience that had no failure come before it, so welcome it. If you’re failing, you’re moving.

Innovation is universally desired but few are willing to endure what innovation requires. If your goal is to generate innovative ideas, the kind that fall from the heavens with a beam of light as angels sing to their majesty, it will require a journey through a much darker and hotter place to get there. If you’re willing, monster ideas are out there waiting to be found. Go chase ‘em.

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