In the ‘disrupted’ business world, where markets are less predictable, technology automates repetitive tasks, and companies are faced with unforeseen competition, the ability to be creative and generate new ideas takes on a wider importance. Innovation is not just about generating ideas or the individual’s understanding of various problem-solving techniques; it’s also important to work with others, and nurture and support new ideas.
Everyone is capable of being creative, but when at work, there’s subtle pressure to uncritically comply with written and unwritten rules. Organisations need to inculcate a creative culture and highlight the importance of innovation. With this in mind, Rob Eastaway has just launched ‘Any Ideas?’, a practical book that helps readers evaluate and build on original ideas. Whether you are working on a new business project inside your company, having a career change, or launching a product, ‘Any Ideas?’ can give you a boost.
In this interview, Eastaway suggests avoiding killing off ideas at an early stage, how to recognise good ideas, and espouses the power of serendipity and a constructive, positive approach. The author also shares his views on the importance of creativity in our society and the future of work.
Gloria Lombardi: How do we come up with ideas – on our own, or with other people?
Rob Eastaway: There’s a myth that some people have ideas and other people do not. Or that some of us have more ideas than others. I argue that all of us have ideas all the time.
Typically, we have ideas when there is a need to do something. When faced with a problem, our brain starts thinking about options. So, ideas come out of necessity to some extent.
But ideas can also come from frustration – we feel that things are not as they could or should be; we wish a particular circumstance was different.
Additionally, ideas come by making connections. It’s important to have other people involved in the ideation process. If you’re working on an assignment – for example, developing a new product or system – many ideas will be drawn from what you have done before. Your personal experience hugely influences what ideas you have for this project. If you have a narrow experience – for example, you’ve only ever worked in a particular culture, on particular types of projects – the ideas might end up to be narrow too. Someone else from another country with a different background and community will have a very different set of experiences to draw from. Hence, if you put two people with different backgrounds together, even people who might not be regarded as ‘creative’, they will inevitably come up with diverse ideas, which is powerful and necessary to the whole process.
But such collaboration creates difficulties too. When something new is suggested, it’s natural for many of us to critique it, or check how it’s going to ‘fit’. Challenging new ideas like this can feel like criticism, with people often explaining how the idea will not work. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, the idea will be summarily killed off if it comes from someone with a different background and understanding of the problem.
GL: How can we then ensure that we nurture – rather than kill off – ideas, especially in a group setting?
RE: The number one rule in nurturing ideas is to protect them in the early stages when they are still fragile and incomplete.
One of the ways to protect ideas is to make sure that they are recorded. Most of the time, ideas are generated in a conversation, so it’s easy to lose early ideas as the discussion continues. If someone dislikes an idea, it’s easy to ignore it. Or if several ideas come up at once, the relevance of early ideas can be missed. But if we record our ideas – on the wall, whiteboard, flip-chart, or wiki / intranet – and never cross them out, we can always return to them. An idea that we dislike at the time might not look so bad when we review the notes the following day. Or vice-versa.
Another way to encourage ideas and let them flow is to foster a constructive culture where the first reaction to ideas is positive – ‘Here’s what I like about this idea’. You say what’s good about their idea before suggesting how you might develop it. This simple switch in how people initially react has a profound impact on engagement levels, and the quality of ideas. When someone’s first reaction is positive, people are more open to hear how it might need changing to suit the situation. Importantly, this constructive, positive mindset encourages the flow of ideas. Protecting ideas in these early stages means we avoid missing opportunities that should be properly evaluated.
GL: How can we make sure that teams keep coming up with ideas?
RE: First of all, teams need to know that you are looking for ideas. It helps if you give an indication of which issues are particularly in need of ideas. Once you have encouraged them to put forward ideas, you need to respond to those ideas constructively. The supply of ideas will rapidly tail off if you don’t give any feedback, or if your feedback is always negative.
GL: But, how do we know that an idea is good?
RE: First, there’s gut reaction. Sometimes it is obvious, almost instantly, that an idea is worth taking forward. Then again, some ideas obviously can’t work; If I said to you, ‘Why don’t we conduct this interview by writing each other letters and popping them in the post?’ – I think both of us would just dismiss that idea pretty quickly: it is impractical, you have a deadline, we need to converse. But, we have to be careful with our instinct. Sometimes an idea that might seem ridiculous at first sight, could turn out to be valuable, even game-changing in the end.
Clearly, we do not want to invest a huge amount of resources on ideas that are a waste of time. One way of learning if an idea is any good is to give it a bit of time; let people reflect and cogitate, and come back to it with fresh eyes. Maybe everyone just needs a 20 minute break, or maybe you can review everything next week.
Additionally, we need to try the idea out. Piloting some aspects of the idea. Reviewing what is good about it, and what needs to change, iteratively improving it. Ultimately, the basic idea might develop into something greater that gets implemented across the organisation.
GL: What can we do when our mind seems to have gone blank?
RE: Find a sympathetic person to talk to. Go for a walk with someone. They don’t need to be in the same field as you; they don’t need to fully understand the problem you’re wrestling with. Simply articulating the issues stimulates your brain. If nobody is around, still go for that walk. When you get back, write down bullet points to describe the problems.
Creating the conditions for serendipity – when ideas come by accident – is also important.
GL: What can we do to make ideas happen by accident more often?
RE: One way is to force ourselves into experiences that are unfamiliar. Even breaking simple daily routines helps. For example, taking a different route into work, which takes us somewhere where we have never been before. Or instead of going by bus, cycling. Or watching completely different genres of films from our usual types of movies. Those contrasting experiences will force our mind to travel in different directions, which helps us to be open to new ideas.
Socialising with your colleagues, even for a few minutes at lunch or in the shared kitchen, prompts the natural exchange of ideas. Learning what’s going on elsewhere feeds your brain with new contexts.’Water cooler moments’, when people catch up with what everyone’s talking about, are so valuable, and can be replicated on the enterprise social network. People need opportunities to bump into, physically or virtually, their colleagues.
GL: Turning an idea into a reality can also be challenging. What are your suggestions for converting ideas into actions?
RE: Public commitment is a great way to drive an idea forward.. Tell people your objectives and expectations, and explain what you’re going to do. Once you’re certain, make a full announcement – commit to opening the new store, or rolling out the new process, and put a timeframe in place.
Make sure to identify supporters of the idea. Think about senior stakeholders as well as the people the new idea affects. When problems come up during the implementation we will go back to them. Keep talking to people about the objectives and benefits, help people remember why this new thing is important.
When things go wrong it is important to treat the negative aspects as problems to solve, rather than dead-ends. For example, instead of saying, ‘It is too expensive. We cannot do it’, say, ‘How can we make it cheaper?’ So, it’s about converting the negative into a problem to solve. Then having ideas to solve those problems. Testing those ideas and taking action. Once implementation is achieved, there will inevitably be new problems. And it all starts again.
It becomes a never ending process. I use an acronym to describe it: PIE – Problem, Ideas, Evaluation; then, if ideas need more refinement, or if you hit problems during implementation, it goes back to Problem again. Creative people are always in that loop. It’s an iterative improvement spiral.
GL: It appears that workers will need new skills in a post-AI world. As the technology will free up time, currently used to perform mundane tasks, creativity will be an important requisite. Will ideas be the only thing that sets us apart from technology in the future?
RE: As we look to the future, there is no doubt that the ability to come up with ideas and solve problems creatively is going to be essential. This is closely linked to the ability to adapt. We need to be able to generate original ideas to cope with new problems because things are always changing.
But, it is not just about the individual’s ability to generate ideas. Being able to work with others, and solve problems together, will be indispensable. That part is often missed. It involves mastering human interactions and showing empathy towards others. It is required now, but it will be even more significant in the future when some jobs and tasks will be automated by machines.