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Ideas: How to keep ‘em flowing

Justin Watkins

May 2015

Marketers agree a steady flow of ideas is important to marketing success. In fact 99.2% in a recent study agreed. It’s sort of endearing 0.8% decided to take a stand against idea generation. Haters gonna hate.

*Source: Kapost, “Content Ideas,” April 8, 2015

For the majority out there looking for that steady flow, here’s some pro-tips from a guy who essentially is paid to come up with said ideas for a living. It’s not a magic formula, but having a framework and techniques to fall back on really does help. So here goes:

1) Ask Why.
Ask “why” five times fast. Actually, not fast, regular pace to answer each time then question that too. You’ll get to the root of the problem. Step back far enough and it reframes everything.

2) Remix. Make connections.
Originality is a myth. What looks original is often just two things that haven’t been mixed together before in that way. Smush things together. See what sticks.

3) Always be collecting.
When you need to go back to the well, it’s helpful to have that well. It could be magazine clippings, screenshots, bookmarks, pinboards, whatever works for you. I’ve tried all of the above. For me, the more visual and accessible the better.

4) Lateral thinking.
Look outside your industry. How would the car industry solve this problem? What’s the equivalent in retail? Asking these questions may lead to a solution that already exists or at least open up your thinking.

5) Use the subconscious.
The best stuff comes in the shower, on a job, a long commute, or mowing the yard. Take advantage of those moments. Fill up your brain with information. Then walk away. Like a literal walk. Don’t force the ideas out. Let the subconscious do the work. Just have a notebook handy when they start to flow.

6) Use empathy.
It’s not about you. Put yourself in the shoes others. Think about their needs, intentions, and context. It’s a simple concept that’s easily ignored. If you want to really use this technique don’t just think about their shoes. Spend time physically mimicking your audience.

7) Sketch it out. Move it around.
How many meetings do you attend where it’s all verbal? A majority of them. Once you get in the habit of whiteboarding, sketching on stickie notes, moving things around, you’ll be forever frustrated with the ineffectiveness of verbal meetings. The visual aspect puts everyone on the same page. And you’ll find you can talk without thinking, but you can’t write or sketch without thinking.

8) Be positive.
Negativity is a creativity killer. Start your statements with “I like, I wish, or What if” and watch the positivity lift everyone’s spirits. There’s a time for criticism, but it’s not the early stages.

9) Trust others and yourself.
We’re all born creative. It’s just beat out of most of us by middle school. Don’t be afraid to throw something out there. If everyone’s being positive then it won’t be criticized. Trust your ideas. Trust others will value your input.

10) Make mistakes quickly.
Much is written about the value of failure and learning the hard way. What I’d say is keep moving. Don’t stop to be cautious. Just keep doing. You’ll mess up, but you’ll correct quickly and be much further along than tip-toeing around.

11) Suspend hierarchy.
If you’re the entry-level hire, speak up. If you’re the big dog exec, shut up. The frontline is often where the best ideas come from. They have access to so much information.

12) Embrace Diversity.
Diversity breeds creativity. Look for all kinds. Various backgrounds, genders, races, opinion, and open up the conversation. A homogeneous group is a fun way to agree quickly, but you can ride that fun wave into irrelevance pretty quickly without some healthy debate.

13) Small teams. Big teams.
Input the larger team. Break into small groups. Bounce back and forth. A group over 5 people makes it hard for each person to contribute, yet you need more than 5 people to get diverse opinions. So use both sizes of groups.

14) Get your blood flowing.
Sit still and your brain sits still. Get off your arse. It’ll loosen everything up including the ideas. I’ve tried walking concept sessions which is hard to take notes, but nice on a spring day. But my favorite that I need to reinstate is the pre-meeting dance parties. Embarrassed to suggest ideas to a small group? Ideas getting stale? Not after 4 minutes and 28 seconds of Young MC’s Bust a Move with colleagues.

15) Be playful.
If it seems childish, good. Again, kids are the most creative creatures in the world. We can learn something from them. Channel that inner child.

16) Iterate.
Progress comes with iteration. Don’t fall in love with the first idea. If you want a good idea have lots to choose from. When you have a ton to choose from start to narrow down based on pre-determined criteria. Then refine and tweak those ideas until they’re fully polished.

17) Worst ideas.
Few things clear out the spider webs as thinking about the worst ideas possible. It frees you up to know the next idea won’t be as bad. But be warned, you might fall in love with the worst idea. I often do. “It’s so stupid it just might work!”

18) Opposite day.
When you’re trying to get others to contribute but they’re coming up blank threaten them with an idea they’ll hate. For example, “where’s lunch?” [crickets] “okay, McDonald’s it is.” Now watch the suggestions roll in.

19) Ask questions.
If all of this is commonsense to you then congratulations. You’re now qualified to be the facilitator at the next ideation session. You don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, that’s often dangerous. The best role you can play is ask the right questions. The questions that will pull out the knowledge from the entire team. #synergy