For most of my professional life, I’ve studied the creative habits of highly successful innovators and the organizations they lead. Turns out there’s wide variance in how these individuals achieve greatness. A common trait emerges in how they approach idea generation. Virtually every one of them at some point devised a conscious process to stimulate the input, throughput and output of ideas on a constant basis. They use a series of routines, habits, and techniques to keep their “idea factories” operating at peak performance levels day in and day out.
Check out their methods below to generate a breakthrough process of your own:
1. Identify what gets your creative juices flowing. As an innovation speaker and coach, I’m in front of clients and audiences on a weekly basis. I use these occasions to do quick surveys, and whenever possible in-depth interviews to supplement the more quantitative research we also do. For example: my recent research indicates that the typical manager today needs three to four times as many ideas as did their counterpart a decade ago. Another finding: fifteen to twenty percent of us hatch our best ideas in the middle of the night. For others, taking a shower or driving is another frequent idea-stimulant. Suggestion: If there’s a time of day when you do your best thinking, plan for it. Make it part of your routine. 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.
2. Inspect your idea factory frequently. What does your “things to do” list reveal about the types of ideas you’re working on just now? Are most of them tactical– pick up the dry cleaning, process the payroll, do the budget, etc. — or are there also some big picture ideas on your radar as well? If your big ideas list is nonexistent, it may be time to identify larger goals and projects. How about your “bucket list” – places you want to see before you “kick the bucket.” And goals for where you want to be one year, three years, and ten years out. Suggestion: start paying closer attention to all your ideas, regardless of category. And regularly inspect, prioritize, sort, eliminate and retool your idea productivity.
3. Download ideas the moment they occur. Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna told me about his personal process for generating ideas. Whether attending board meetings, relaxing with his family, 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 working on, and boom – you get an idea. I’m always in this mode of looking for better ways of doing things.” Innovators like McKenna are always alert – always ready to capture ideas. They pounce. They’re like vacuum cleaners. Suggestion: If you ever find yourself muttering: “I don’t need to write down that idea, I’ll remember it” take stock. It could indicate you’re not serious about taking action. Innovators know that ideation (coming up with ideas) without implementation is mere hallucination. The human mind is a great mechanism for hatching ideas. But it’s a lousy place for storing them. Download immediately.
4. Study the personal best practices of the innovators around you. Eleanor Roosevelt once commented that “small minds talk about people, and average minds talk about events. Great minds discuss ideas.” If you’re lucky to have even one person in your life that loves to discuss ideas, you are blessed. Because the greats know that the people in our lives can often be the catalysts to think bigger. 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 professor 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 they 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 creative 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 Opportunity Mindset.
6. Pay attention to the happy accidents in your life. One way to hatch brilliant ideas is simply to pay more attention to serendipitous events in your life. When researcher Jeannette Garcia made a mixing error in her IBM lab in San Jose, California, she returned to find a hard white plastic that has incredible new properties. Garcia had inadvertently discovered a new family of advanced materials. These polymers are light and strong and can be easily reformed to make products recyclable, so they have great commercial promise. A surprisingly large number of inventions are the result of “happy accidents” including: Velcro, Nutrasweet, Viagra, Scotchgaard, FedEx, Silly Putty, and many others. What about the happy accidents in your life? For example: You chat with an Uber driver about a project you’re working on, and voila, the conversation shifts your perspective. You happen upon data that shows surprisingly strong sales of a particular product your company sells: that too is a happy accident. But if we’re not paying attention and open to new possibilities, we can get so busy working our “things to do today” lists that we overlook the serendipitous opportunities.
7. Look for ideas by wandering around, asking questions. 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 habit of “managing by walking around” and asking questions might seem heavy-handed. But his team loved him for it. He took an interest in their work and wasn’t afraid to challenge their approach.
8. Take a Doug Day. Doug Greene was the founder of New Hope Natural Media, a pioneer in the natural and organic foods industry and one of the fastest growing companies in America. Here’s how Doug described his favorite method of generating 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.