Try a boss-free brainstorm

Want to kill a brainstorm? Invite the boss. Participants will hold back their wilder contributions and the second the boss opens his/her mouth the session will be dominated by their ideas. And even if boss holds their tongue the team will waste time looking for approval.

Bosses around the world might think, “Well, yeah, I’m the boss and I want my team to figure out to make my ideas work.” Fine, but that’s not how to get the best ideas from your team. Let them surprise you. A team needs some space away from their boss and the risk of judgement. Bad ideas will flow in a brainstorm and that’s fine because sometimes they lead to good ideas. If a team is second-guessing the quality of their ideas they won’t offer as much.

Hey boss, help your team by defining project goals and then step out for coffee. Try a boss-free brainstorm and you’ll see a difference in the quality and volume of ideas generated.

The three paths to innovation

If you’re innovating on an existing product or idea the entire process might involve hundreds of decisions  - but the initial steps aren’t so mysterious. You have three choices that take into account your goals, risk tolerance and timeline:

1. Continue the current aesthetic. You might make this decision to save time, leverage existing brand awareness, etc. Safe and secure.

2. Evolve the the current aesthetic. Maybe you’ve received feedback that will help refine the user experience or you discovered something new about your audience that needs to be addressed. Assumes some risk and additional development time.

3. React to the current aesthetic. Perhaps you want to make a statement, surprise users with something fresh and possibly get press for the shift in direction. The riskiest option and possibly the most expensive.

Warm your brain before a brainstorm

I'm going to share a personal revelation from several years ago - designing and playing music use very different parts of the brain. If I worked all day then did an evening gig it took at least an hour before I warmed up and transitioned to using the right bits of my brain. The music bits. It wasn’t just a case of warming up my muscles, I had shift my emotional/cerebral patterns before I could play well. I learned to set aside time for the transition.

Warming up your brain before you dive into any creative task, like brainstorming, will make you more effective at that task. Well, duh. This isn’t a revelation so much as a reminder. Feeding your brain with ideas will help new ideas come quicker. If you’re about to choreograph a new dance piece, watch other dances (of other styles, even. Gasp!). If you’re baking a cake, visit a bakery. If you’re designing a new toy, visit a toy store. You get the idea. Then, when you’ve changed your state and fed your brain, start brainstorming. 

Start punching holes

Arguing is the new buzz in brainstorming. It’s an unsurprising backlash to the the brainstorm de rigueur of the past few years in which criticism is minimized. But its not an either/or decision. Both approaches are helpful depending on your needs at the moment.

Do you have a shortage of ideas? Use a brainstorm to generate fresh perspectives and potential connections. Have an abundance of ideas and need to filter them down? Invite someone to help you punch holes in the various ideas. It doesn’t need to be an argument. In fact, I suggest taking turns attacking and defending the various ideas on the table so you have to evaluate both the positive and negative qualities of a given idea. Call it an empathy exercise.

This also produces interesting results if you’re at a creative impasse. It takes a strong person to say, “Okay, for the moment let’s switch positions and I’ll argue for your idea and you try to attack it.”

The Idea Matrix

New ideas don't just appear. They are the result of conscious, or subconscious, connections being made by the creator. Someone took two or more disparate ideas and combined them to get an unexpected result. Concept artists use this strategy all the time. Need a cute dragon? Combine a dragon with something soft and fuzzy, maybe a peach or a puppy, and start illustrating. I call this the Idea Matrix.

The initial idea will probably evolve once pen hits paper but you're just looking for something to get the creative juices flowing. 

Here's how it works: I write down the thing I'm designing (character, logo, UI, etc). Then I'll list the qualities I want this thing to have. Following that I'll list other things in the universe that have those qualities. Once I have a list of those things I'll select my favorites and begin exploring combinations of the intitial concept with new references that represent more emotional associations. Try it out!

Brainstorming 101

As a creative tool brainstorms have taken a beating the past couple years. The key is setting expectations and organization. Don't throw a bunch of people into a room and expect magic to happen. Some tips...

1. Define the goals. Let the team know what the problem is that they're solving and describe criteria.
2. Appoint a leader. Keeps conversation moving along and polices judgement. Flags tangents.
3. Appoint a scribe. Documents all of the ideas on a flip chart or white board. Ideally in full view of the group.
4. Don't be critical. Nothing kills the desire to get involved like judgement. You can debate and argue later.
5. Embrace the wild ideas. The crazy thoughts can always be scaled back. 
6. Set goals. More ideas are better so go for volume. Set motivating goals like, "Let's come up with 25 new ideas."

Seeing is believing: use art to develop consensus

Artists are in a unique position to develop consensus and prove, or disprove, ideas. Why? Because a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Put a group of people in a room to discuss a visual solution to something and I guarantee they will all leave the room with different pictures in the heads. Have that same group reacting to something visual and the conversation will be more focused, shorter and the picture in everyones heads will be more similar.

If visuals haven’t been prepped in advance, use a whiteboard or a scrap of paper. It doesn’t need to be a work of art, it just needs to communicate an idea. If conversation is going in a circle and everyone is championing their own idea I’ll even suggest a meeting be rescheduled so I’ll have time to make some visuals.

Use images to get gutchecks on an idea in it’s early stage and use them to help set agendas for conversations.

Share your bad ideas

Seeing is believing. Sometimes the path to resolution, and evolution, of an idea means sharing your bad ideas. Yours and the clients. Sharing the good and bad,  and soliciting responses, will tune your understanding of what is important to someone.

At some point a client will ask you to do something that you think is a bad idea and, despite your genius, the best thing to do is to show them what they ask for. Worst case scenario: you discover that you’re not the genius you thought you were. Best case: the client sees first-hand that their idea doesn’t work and they trust you more. In either case you’ll learn a little more about the project by embracing the request and trying it out.

This doesn’t need to be a source of stress. If you’re working with a new client budget for iteration. It will improve the quality of your work and make your clients happier.

Fear the pie (in the sky)

Creativity is fueled by constraints. The challenge is finding the right amount of information to get you started but not so much that you have no room to explore. Imagine sitting down to start a painting with no idea what you’re going to do. Then imagine sitting down to paint having made the decision to paint a duck. The second scenario immediately triggers associations and it’ll be faster to get into a state of creative flow.

If you’re working with a client who says ‘do whatever you like’ plan for extra revisions. You’ll soon find out that they’re aren’t actually okay with you doing anything. They just didn’t know what they wanted until they had something to react to. 

Learn how to interview clients, and yourself, to establish the right amount of enabling constraints. If you aren't doing that now, try it, it will save you time down the road.