Snapshot : Learn three ways to generate more creative thinking ideas. Firstly, identify the three key roles of opportunity owner, facilitator and contributor in idea generation. Then, define the differences between creative and operational ways of working. And finally, learn how to set up an environment and culture to support creativity.
In our creative thinking guide, we cover the reasons why creativity adds value to your business. So, how creativity helps you differentiate your brand identity for example. How it helps you improve the customer experience. And finally, how it helps you build your brand assets for brand activation.
So, with those clear benefits in mind, you’d think businesses would spend a lot of time on creative thinking, right?
But really, think about it. How much time have you spent on creative thinking lately? Be honest. Probably, not as much as you’d like.
In our experience, far more time and effort goes into running a business, than thinking creatively about how to grow it. This running the business we call “operations-mode”. And yes, it is important. But on its own, it won’t guarantee success.
Because operations without creative thinking is like running a race without knowing where the finish line is. It can lead to a lot of wasted effort and wrong turns. You won’t pick the fastest and best way to win.
So, you also need a “creative mode” that runs alongside your operations mode. But, what comes out of creative mode, needs to support operations. Because, it’s the operations mode that delivers progress and results.
So, you need creativity and operations to work together. Together, they make a business more of a whole.
Here’s the thing though.
Though operations is hard work, there’s a level of predictability and certainty to it. You know what to expect. And most people like predictability and certainty. So, they feel comfortable in the routines and processes that go with the operational mode.
Creative thinking though, by its nature, is unpredictable and uncertain. It can make people feel very uncomfortable. Like it’s not actually “real” work. And that’s a real challenge for many businesses.
There are many ways to help people feel more comfortable in “creative-mode”. In this article, we will focus on three easy ways you can support creativity. And these will help generate more creative thinking ideas for your business.
Creative thinking ideas #1 - Define key roles in idea generation
The idea generation stage, as we cover in our creative thinking guide is the first of three stages in the creative thinking process.
It’s followed by the idea screening and idea refinement stages.
At this first stage, there are three distinct roles involved. These are the opportunity owner, the facilitator and the contributor.
Each role has its own responsibilities, key tasks and key behaviours to help generate ideas.
The opportunity owner
The opportunity owner is the one who identifies the need for creative thinking ideas. This might be the business owner in a small business. Or, a marketing leader in a bigger business.
In more pessimistic businesses, this role can also be called the problem owner. But, as we cover in our creative thinking guide, positivity in how you frame questions leads to more positive ideas and outcomes.
So, we like to apply the same approach to the naming of roles. So, for us, opportunity owner is a better name for the role that problem owner.
This opportunity normally relates to one of the creative thinking business benefits we mentioned earlier – brand differentiation, customer experience or brand activation. And the need for creative thinking normally kicks in when the opportunity owner doesn’t have an existing or known solution to take advantage of the opportunity. If they did, then they would just do it, obviously.
Idea generation / ideation session
So to create a new and as yet unknown solution to meet the opportunity, the opportunity owner usually decides to set up an idea generation or ideation session. And to do this, they should call on a facilitator and contributors to help them generate creative thinking ideas.
This is usually done at an ideation workshop. The opportunity owner participates in this session. But, importantly they don’t run the session itself. They participate as an idea contributor only.
While they will have to evaluate ideas and decide on the way forward, they park those tasks till later in the process.
The opportunity owner has to remain open-minded during this ideation session. It’s important they accept all ideas, whatever they think of them. They need to trust the facilitator to run the session in a way that will generate a large number of ideas.
While the opportunity owner owns the need to take advantage of the opportunity, the facilitator role owns the process to find the idea that will meet that need.
The facilitator’s role is to manage the process of the ideation workshop. They need to understand the opportunity owners need. From this, they set the agenda and plan on how the session will generate ideas to meet that need. This can include providing stimulus material, running creative thinking exercises and finding external inputs. We cover some of these in our creative thinking guide, and in other articles.
The facilitator runs the session. This includes taking notes and ensuring that the group keeps to time. Their objective is to help the group generate and organise ideas.
But importantly, they are not there to contribute ideas themselves. In fact, it’s important they avoid judging or filtering ideas. That’s a job for the opportunity owner at the next stage of the process.
It can often help to have a facilitator from outside the business itself, say from a marketing agency or a specialist facilitator. If the facilitator is an expert in the process, but not the topic, it can help a lot. They are more likely to remain impartial on the ideas the group create.
The facilitator is also responsible for co-ordinating the outputs of the meeting. They should send these to the opportunity owner. And, at that point, the responsibility for the ideas passes back to the opportunity owner.
Contributors are anyone in the business, or from outside like your marketing agencies who bring ideas, knowledge or expertise to the opportunity.
You may have people in your business who are naturally good at coming up with innovative and different answers to opportunities. Or, you may have people with specific skills or understanding who can add new and divergent thinking to the opportunity.
Contributors are expected to fully participate in the session led by the facilitator. But, as ideas go through screening and testing, contributors will only be called on as required.
The benefit of bringing together these three different roles is that it leads to a wider range of ideas. It also leads to a better overall mix of ideas to choose from. But, for that to happen, you need to establish that the “creative” session is a different way of working to how most people spend their time at work, which is operations-mode.
Creative thinking ideas 2 – Recognise the differences in creative and operational modes.
An important part of the facilitator’s role is to get the opportunity owner and the contributors into a frame of mind where they can be creative. Because, in most businesses, the majority of time is spent on activities which are operational, and not creative.
So, these operational activities include things like writing reports, reviewing budgets and plans, and meetings to check on progress and timelines. They’ll also include status meetings to share knowledge and build relationships.
These are obviously important tasks to run a business. But, it’s important to recognise that these are not the only tasks that matter in a business. And if you only spend time on these tasks, you end up with a business that puts in a lot of effort, but which may not be heading in the right direction.
If you compare running your business to running a race, the operational side of the business is putting one foot in front of the other to move forward.
But if you never stop to check that you are heading towards the finish line, you run the risk of getting lost or heading the wrong way.
So, creative thinking sessions are more like checking the direction of the business. They help you plan the best route to take. This means you “run” better when you go back into operational mode.
Your “creative” time and “operational” time need to work together in a symbiotic way.
The outputs from your creative time can make your operational activities more effective. And, the outputs from your operational time also inform and direct your creative efforts.
Operations really covers all the routines, procedures, rules and known solutions that you use to run your day to day business. These are the things that makes a business efficient.
For anyone who has ever worked in a factory, in a restaurant or bar, in an office, you’ll recognise these as the the activities which produce products and services. And they are the activities which track and monitor how well you produce those products and services.
But in creative sessions to generate creative thinking ideas, you perform a different set of tasks.
You ask people to review and reflect on a number of inputs. What’s going on with customers and competitors, for example? What new technical advances are coming to market? And, what competitive advantage does your business need to succeed in the future?
Creative session are typically less formal and structured than operational meetings.
You’re asking people to think rather than carry out the tasks they normally do.
It’s common to use different stimulus. You might use different sensory inputs like video, images and music for example. Often, you’ll have storytelling inputs like case studies.
The way of working is much more speculative and experimental. The outputs are much less tangible too. You often need to generate many ideas and discard them to find the one best solution that will work.
Because people are used to spending more time in “operational” mode, it can often be hard to adjust to this more open, playful and chaotic approach. Creative thinking sessions are also usually more fun than operational sessions. This can make some people feel uncomfortable. As though, work should be something serious, and having fun is not working.
Chaos and fun lead to focussed and serious impact
So, in terms of creative thinking ideas, it’s important to show how the “chaos” and “fun” element of creativity have an impact. How, they actually have a much more “focussed” and “serious” impact on the future success of the business.
You need to show how the creative ideas feed back into those benefits we mentioned earlier – brand differentiation, customer experience and brand activation. And, how improvements in these areas ultimately lead to more customers, more sales and better profitability.
Creative thinking ideas 3 – Create an environment and culture that supports creativity
While creativity as a topic in business appeals to many, it’s often easier to talk about it than to do it.
When you read the background to the most successful creative led companies like Pixar, Apple and Google you realise that creativity is part of their culture. And if you want to maximise the benefit of creativity to your business, you need to think about how to make it part of your culture. About how you do things on a regular basis.
For example, you shouldn’t limit creativity to just group brainstorming sessions. It’s not the only way to generate creative thinking ideas for your business.
In fact, many studies show that group brainstorming doesn’t generate more or better ideas than other methods.
Generate ideas from extroverts AND introverts
This is mainly due to the way groups work when they come together. And, especially when you have dominant extrovert types in the group. So, while group sessions are still important to generate creative thinking ideas, they shouldn’t be the only way you do it.
Think about how else you can generate ideas. And, in particular bring in ideas from introverts in your business. They’ll often take longer to come up with a solution, but will also usually create much better quality solutions because of the thinking time they spend on the idea.
On this topic, it makes us think of the book, The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun, about his experiences working at WordPress. In that business, workers almost exclusively work remotely from all around the world. So, group brainstormings like we describe above don’t really happen.
And yet, this company, comes up with huge numbers of new innovations on a regular basis. They do this by creative use of technology, particularly internal blog posting, message boards and live chats. These are great idea forums for more introverted thinkers.
They also have limited but very focussed in-person get-togethers. This means they don’t lose ideas from their extrovert thinkers. At these, teams are charged with coming up with specific creative thinking ideas together to exploit opportunities and fix problems.
Creative thinking ideas - Conclusion
When your business focusses only on the operational side, it’s easy to forget the value that creativity brings. It’s important to get into the habit of making sure that creativity gets its fair share of your time.
With that in mind, we wanted to close by sharing two of our 2021 New Year resolutions.
The first is that we’ve set ourselves a target to run more regular creative thinking sessions. We’ll post ideas from these that our customers and readers can use.
Which also conveniently covers off our second resolution. Which is to be more active on our social media channels. Like many businesses, we got sucked into the day to day grind at the end of last year. We want to make this year different.
That includes better connection and sharing through our social media channels.