The Bible states, “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” Of course, Ecclesiastes was written before anyone knew there would be the internet, cell phones, and the George Foreman indoor/outdoor electric grill with the nonstick surface and variable temperature control. We have been inundated with so many wild new inventions that many companies are in a race to create the next big thing. And the people who suffer from that race are the ones called upon to dream up that next, big, innovative break-through. This leads to brainstorm sessions with demands of “Who has a new idea?”
As more and more research into the brain reveals how that three pound organ on top of our shoulders operates, the more we are learning that, as marvelous and inventive as the brain can be, it isn’t built to invent; at least not the way we often ask it to. In order for a company to get the most creativity out of its employees, it is to shuck off a couple of common myths. The first is that necessity is the mother of invention. It is true that solving problems can be the impetus for new things. When the spring-loaded retractable tape measure was invented, carpenters were happy to ditch the old, wooden, folding measuring sticks. But the retractable tape measure was not invented to solve a problem. In fact, carpenters didn’t have a problem with a measuring stick. It was only after carpenters saw the new option that the old one became a problem.
As such, inventions create solutions to problems no one knew existed. This distinction is important because many companies, and brainstorm facilitators, approach new ideas as an opportunity to solve a problem, instead of the better goal of “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” The Wright Brothers didn’t build an airplane because we needed airplanes in our lives, they built one because they thought it would be really cool to fly. It wasn’t until years after the introduction of the airplane that we created a culture that relied on flight.
The second, and more important, myth that companies must dismiss is the notion that there are big ideas just waiting to be thought. The fact is the human brain is incapable of creating a completely original thought. (Just ask a parent who realizes that she has just spoken to her children using the exact words her parents said to her as a child.) This claim might seem ridiculous given that human inventions have grown exponentially with each century of our time on Earth. The rise in inventions has little to do with our ability to spontaneously create and more to do with numbers and free time. The larger the population, the more ideas are generated, and the less time we need to spend on finding food and avoiding big animals who are also looking for food, the more time we have to noodle on cool ideas. But no matter how much time and resources we have, the brain cannot conjure up a completely original idea.
While the brain is terrible at creating brand-spankity new ideas, it is great at incremental change. This is the skill of which companies should take the most advantage. If you ask people to deliver ground-breaking ideas, they will shut down. The overwhelmingness of the request will cause the person to mentally freeze. What you can ask is for people to make small changes to existing ideas. As long as they keep making small change upon small change, pretty soon you will have an idea that looks nothing like where you started. Each small change, while seemingly meaningless, spurs a colleague to add to the idea. This group process of mixing and adding ideas is what creates breakthrough innovations.
You also need to trick the brain into coming up with an idea without it realizing what is happening. The easiest way to accomplish this is to ask questions that challenge the status quo. Many companies assume they do this when they brainstorm about an existing product or service. (“How can we change what we already do?”) This isn’t necessarily a bad approach, but it is limiting. This approach carries the same overwhelmingness as “Who has a great idea?”
Instead of setting a goal to change an existing product or service, seek first to change how you value it. Reinterpreting the nature of the product, rather than discussing its inherent qualities, tricks the brain into viewing the world through a different lens. This is where “ah ha” moments are born. When the car-sharing service Lyft was created, it was not trying to compete with taxi services. It was attempting to change how we value the very notion of transportation. Good companies are able to view what they offer from perspectives that challenge the very nature of what they do.
Brainstorm sessions must start with a good hard look at the value of what you provide, and accepting that perhaps the value lies somewhere you have not yet considered. Companies should shift the focus from a problem that must be solved to “what would be really cool, if we could only invent it?” And facilitators cannot demand big ideas, they must do what seems most counterintuitive; they should ask for small ones.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.