Ideas come about through the four murky phases of research, processing, setting the problem down, and then picking it back up after a period of time. It’s really that simple, and here’s a stupid-simple graphic to show it:
Research a problem until you’ve gathered information that your mind can process. Process that information in some way, through exercises or writing or talking or simply letting your mind wander. Then, forget the problem. Walk away for some length of time and come back. When you return, your ideas will start to take shape.
Ideas can strike quickly, or they can take a very long time to appear. Sometimes, while you’re in the midst of research, your mind will spring forward into processing information, will seem to wander away for a split second, and then you’ll have a “lightbulb moment.” Sometimes you can research for days, weeks, months, or years, process that information, and find great ideas years down the road. So, while this process is simple, creating ideas on a schedule is not easy.
There’s No Linear Path to New Ideas
Only inputs can lead to outputs—there’s no straight-line effort you can apply to generate great ideas. As products of formalized education systems and return-on-investment focused business environments, we’re taught to think sequentially and to be right at every step in the sequence. This logical, or vertical thinking forces us to choose one path and continue down it, excluding alternatives along the way. Great content ideas require the antithesis of that mindset. Great ideas are unpredictable and unprecedented. They require a different strategy.
The Roles You Must Inhabit
Creative thinkers are able to mentally switch between mindsets in order to produce great ideas. Mental switching is facilitated by thinking of the roles you must inhabit while ideating. Author Roger Von Oech‘s framework states there are four characters you must learn to inhabit while creating ideas:
The Explorer: The searcher who relentlessly uncovers data sources, researches personas, understands markets, and surveys successful content in the field. This role requires you to fill your head with facts, stats, and information about customers and competitors.
The Artist: The lateral thinker who takes that raw information and transforms it into great ideas.
The Warrior: The doer who pushes through critical thinking barriers and the “that won’t work” second guessing to produce bold ideas.
The Judge: The vertical thinker who judges the quality of ideas and makes decisions about which to pursue, which to table, and which to throw out before her co-workers find them in the printer and suspect she’s losing her mind.
The more you understand what role is required for your content needs and have the awareness and discipline to inhabit each of them, the better creative thinker you’ll be.
Be Walt Disney
Take a page out of a pro’s book. In Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys, he describes Walt Disney’s creative process:
On the first day, he would play the dreamer and dream up fantasies and wishful visions. He would let his imagination soar without worrying about how to implement his conceptions. His fantasy analogies permitted him to connect words, concepts, and ideas with apparently irrelevant objects and events. The result was a rich treasure of associations an imagination avalanche with whole mountains of ideas crashing down. The next day, he would try to bring his fantasies back to earth by playing the realist. As a realist, he would look for ways to engineer his ideas into something workable and practical. Finally, on the last day, he would play the part of the critic and poke holes into his ideas. Is it feasible? Can you translate the idea’s features into customer benefits, and, if so, can you make money with it?
Too many of us in the business world are professionals at the last half of that equation, but never practice the first part. We’re trained vertical thinkers and little else.
What’s Wrong with Vertical Thinking?
Imaginative vs. Practical
We think we don’t have time to be imaginative. We view creative work as the domain of artists and people who can afford to spend their weekdays in reflection. If something is wrong, we rush to fix it. We rationalize why a content effort failed, then try to course-correct by creating more. We make cases for the long-term or the cumulative effect of Evergreen content, and we spend less time asking “why?” Great ideas require your imagination. That’s what lateral thinking is for. Lateral thinking is time consuming, but it isn’t optional.
What is Lateral Thinking?
Lateral thinking is the outside-the-box creative thinking that we applaud publicly but don’t incentivize in the office. It’s thinking horizontally to come up with solutions. It’s the non-linear path. It helps restructure information in our minds. All great ideas, jokes, and innovations happen when common patterns are restructured in people’s minds using lateral thinking.
- A willingness to be wrong
- Opportunities, not solutions
- Asking “What else?”
- More mental play
A Willingness to be Wrong Sometimes
Your fear of being wrong hasn’t come just from your business training. You’ve been taught from early childhood to avoid mistakes. If you were wrong, you got an “F” in class. If you were kind of right, you moved onto the next grade with the rest of your peers. In the business world, if we play it safe, we don’t get fired. You have to take some risks in the journey to create great ideas.
Find Opportunities, Not Solutions
Ask “What Else?”
When ideas start flowing, there are two common paths most people take. One is to say “Yes,” and the other, “No.” This is a false dichotomy. By introducing a third lateral thinking possibility of “What Else?” you’ll avoid dismissing a potentially valuable idea. When you don’t immediately judge new ideas, you find that:
They eventually make sense.
They push you to research new information.
They change your understanding of a situation.
Break Free from the 10 Mental Locks
Most of our lives are experienced in a non-creative state because we’re not asked or incentivized to be creative. Habitual routines get us through our workdays. In A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oeck proposes that there are ten “mental locks” that explain why we’re not creative:
- The Right Answer
- That’s Not Logical
- Follow the Rules
- Be Practical
- Play Is Frivolous
- That’s Not My Area
- Don’t Be Foolish
- Avoid Ambiguity
- To Err Is Wrong
- I’m Not Creative
Print this list out and keep it at your desk. Notice when your self-talk or the talk of colleagues around you goes down these paths. This is the mindset shift that will allow you to follow the framework I propose. Even if you don’t use the framework, keeping these tendencies in mind can be a big boost to your creative capacities.
More Mental Play, Better Ideas
If you’re willing to be impractical (sometimes even wrong) and keep your eyes open for opportunities, never settling for just one answer, you’ll find a treasure trove of ideas.
The more time you can devote to pursuing information and pursuing mental play or lateral thinking to generate ideas, the better. In the business world, we rarely make time for this unstructured form of work. That’s why I’ve developed a framework that can serve both as a rough guideline and a temperature gauge for your content ideation efforts.
Vertical thinking serves an important purpose in helping us make good decisions, but it’s the most overrated tool in the creative thinker’s toolkit. If you can develop mental flexibility to switch between lateral and vertical thinking, you’ll have a potent combination of skills in both idea generation and critical thinking – A marketer’s dream!
Research It, Process It, Drop It, Return to It. The process for how great ideas come about.
Be an Explorer, an Artist, a Warrior, and a Judge. You’re a creative. As a creative, you need to inhabit many roles, depending on the situation you’re presented with.
Look for opportunities, not solutions. In business, we strive for the best solutions; in ideation, we strive for the most opportunities.
Overcome the ten mental blocks. You and the people around you will create excuses to avoid creativity. Commit the “mental locks” to memory, and you’re on your first step to overcoming them.