Have you ever had a brainstorming session at work that feels devoid of creativity or any practical ideas? Growing in my career in marketing, I feel like I’ve been in hundreds of these. Especially in cross-functional teams, someone in the room claims “I’m an ideas guy” like they’re going to save everyone… but then proceeds to say something remarkably unoriginal. However, that made me wonder what “an ideas guy” is and how to create brainstorming sessions that harness creativity in business rather than kill it.
Side note: I’m about to go into my theories on creativity and why people have good and bad ideas. You can jump to that section if you’d instead learn how to apply this in business.
What is an “ideas” guy?
To me, being ‘an ideas guy’ potentially has 3 meanings:
- Firstly, it means that the person saying it only has ideas (or is particularly significant at coming up with ideas – like if you had a “Whiskey guy” who was your source of excellent whiskey),
- It implies that no one else has thoughts and their ideas are better, or
- They have an idea but have no idea how to execute it.
And maybe it’s me, but I always find this quite offensive.
It’s as if they’re saying they have great ideas and you don’t have any. Or that their ideas are better than yours. In reality, you often hear this from someone in a different department. And when someone challenges their opinion, it becomes clear that it’s not thought through very well. That doesn’t make it a bad idea necessarily. But it probably means the “ideas guy” is unsure why it’s a good idea or how to execute it.
Is there such a thing as a bad idea?
I suppose it makes sense. If you were in a room full of creative people, maybe you’re hoping they can add to the idea and make it work. The problem is that if everyone did this, you’d probably just have a room of people shouting out bad ideas…
It’s said that there is “no such thing as a bad idea”.
While I largely agree with this, unfortunately, coming up with a good idea (or a not bad idea) is often the quickest or easiest part. If you’re looking for a game-changing idea, this can take ages. But, the most time-consuming part is actually executing the idea. And usually, people consider this before announcing their concept to the room.
So, before we look at how to get a room full of people to come up with good ideas, I think it’s important to understand what creativity is and what differentiates a good idea from a bad idea?
What is Creativity?
Creativity is a crucial part of having a “good idea”. As an avid musician, music student, and general enthusiast for much of my life, I’ve been around a fair few people I’d class as “creative geniuses”. These people can imagine an incredible idea immaculately constructed and working seamlessly in moments.
Despite graduating with a First in my BA(Hons) Degree in Music, I’ve never considered myself to have that gift. I even earned 94/100 for my final composition (one of the top 3 grades in the year). Yet, to someone from the outside, people always comment, “oh, you must be very creative.” And while I don’t consider myself “uncreative”, I’ve been around enough genuinely creative people to know that I’m not one of these.
Ultimately, I believe perceived creativity is the combination of 2 things:
- Ideation – the art of coming up with creative ideas
- Execution – being able to convert these ideas into a chosen medium
Now, you don’t need me to tell you what an idea is or how to come up with one. But I do have some thoughts on good ideas vs bad ideas. And what makes a creative idea.
Firstly, I’d say there are broadly 3 types of ideas:
- Common Sense Ideas
- Logical Ideas
- Creative Ideas
Firstly, to come up with an idea in a given field, you must have a general understanding of the field of study. That makes sense. The leading ideas in science come from scientists and not your average joe on the street.
Or is it?
Common Sense Ideas
If we look at the COVID Vaccine, you don’t have to be a scientist to know that “COVID-19 is a virus; we should create a vaccine for it.” I call these common-sense ideas. You must know a little about how viruses and vaccines work to understand that a vaccine is a potential solution. But equally, everyone with GCSE Science would be able to come up with it. But you’re not sure if that’s the answer – you never get a vaccine for a cold, so would it work here? Ultimately, it’s very high level and lacks the detail of any specialised knowledge.
As mentioned previously, Common Sense Ideas aren’t bad ideas. This idea is ultimately a good one, but, as you can see, it’s not particularly helpful…
However, you need to know a lot more when creating the vaccine. First, you need to understand the relevant fields of science (biology, chemistry, medicine etc.) and the virus itself. Then, the likely solution will be reasonably logical once you can identify the make-up of the virus and combine that with your knowledge of medicine and test some theories.
I call this a Logical Idea: You have sufficient knowledge of the subject to logically come up with a few ideas that fit the criteria.
You will often see this on a resume or a job advert called “creative problem-solving”.
And these first 2 types of ideas are what I was referring to when I mentioned that coming up with the concept can be the easy part. However, the following kind of idea is much more difficult.
Now, the 3rd type of idea is a creative idea. No amount of logical thinking could explain a genuinely creative idea. You may be able to, in hindsight, figure out the logical path you would take to get there. But you would never logically follow the path of ideas to come up with it.
A great example is when Burger King sponsored Stevenage FC, a football team in SkyBet League 2. They did so for a fraction of the cost of sponsoring a premier league club and leveraging the FIFA franchise to maximise its exposure. So logically, you can work backwards and see how you came up with this and why this would work.
But can you imagine coming up with it?
It was probably a brain wave one of the team had while playing FIFA one day.
And, it wouldn’t surprise me if other brands followed suit. It’s a fantastic way to reach a mass audience for a fraction of the cost. And this may increase the price for sponsoring lower league clubs, presenting them with a way to generate more income into the lower tiers of the football pyramid.
Additionally, Mozart wrote his first composition aged 5. And it’s pretty decent. It’s much more likely that at 5 years old, this is pure creativity, rather than logically putting together sounds after years of studying technical components of music theory and piano.
On the other hand, executing an idea requires technical skill and knowledge of the field. You need a detailed technical understanding of the tools that are required.
For example, you could have the best idea for a video in the world, but if you don’t know how to use a video camera or video editing software, then you’re never going to be able to do it. (With tools like Instagram and Facebook Live are more accessible than ever, but it still requires some technical knowledge).
Similarly, having impeccable handwriting or being a speedy typist is an example of mastering technical skills. But, it doesn’t mean that you’re a best-selling author.
Additionally, you cannot play guitar or piano without knowing which notes are which (in the Mozart example, this is debatable, but more on that another time). You can, however, play guitar or piano without having any ideas. Most people learn an instrument by simply learning to read what is essentially a new, small language, which maps out rhythms and pitches, rather than phonics (which letters in regular languages represent).
Often, you are just copying other people’s work, especially when you start. So, where’s the creativity in that? Are you creative if you can speak? Not necessarily. So why do people play an instrument or paint pictures labelled as creative?
Here we get to the crux of “perceived creativity”. People perceive certain technical skills as being more closely related to creativity. But that’s not necessarily true. For me, coming up with creative or even logical ideas makes you more creative than deeply learning technical skills.
So musicians and artists aren’t creative?
So, you may be thinking that this means musicians, artists, and marketers aren’t creative.
Well… not exactly.
I am by no means devaluing these technical skills. However, as I mentioned initially in the piece, the idea is often the easy part. On the other hand, it requires years of practice to develop technical competence to execute ideas effectively. I’d argue that’s much harder.
If we return to the Burger King example, the campaign wouldn’t have been successful without technical skill and knowledge. It requires specialised knowledge of Social Media and a psychological understanding of human behaviour to know how to maximise exposure once you have sponsored Stevenage FC’s kit. In addition, negotiating to get the sponsorship deal in the first place requires skill.
There is a good chance that if you study guitar for long enough, you will dabble at writing songs. And while the first few will be bad, eventually, you will enhance your skill of creativity. The same goes for creating videos, painting, coding, drawing and writing. And, as you practice those technical skills more, the more you will enjoy them and may go on to have careers in them. And creativity is absolutely a skill that can be learned and even mastered through study and practice. It can also be cross-functional.
I have a picture of a professional ‘Ideas guy’ we raised initially. They have spent a long time honing their creativity skills and are now a natural at thinking outside the box. Or maybe a “logical ideas person” that is industry agnostic but also figures out the logical idea for the job.
Often though, the technical skills these individuals know may be less obvious, especially in business. For a salesperson, for example, it may be persuasion. And while they initially learnt someone else’s playbook, they begin to develop methods of persuasion that work.
How to apply creativity in business?
So, how does this help you? If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking to understand how to bring creative ideas into your business.
Ultimately, I believe everyone is creative. And anyone that intuitively understands their expertise can contribute ideas that will drive the business forward. However, creativity is a skill that people can hone and improve.
1. Avoid the dreaded brainstorming session
A group “brainstorming session” rarely yields creative ideas despite its name and reputation. And it would be best if you avoided it at all costs.
The trouble with group sessions is that whoever speaks the loudest gets heard. Or whoever can sell their idea the best.
But that doesn’t mean this person has the best idea. And sometimes, you can go with the loudest idea, even if it isn’t very good. But because you committed to it in the meeting, you have to see it through.
Then, when it doesn’t work, you’re back where you started.
2. Use “Together alone” time in meetings
The quieter folks in your team will often be the sources of the best ideas. These people are often more modest and like to be confident in their thoughts before speaking and committing them to the group. Indeed, research shows that isolation is the best environment to develop profound creative ideas.
There’s a methodology called “together-alone” where, when you are in a group meeting, each person works in silence for a 5-10 minute period, and then everyone contributes their ideas. This isolated thinking period allows people to think more deeply and critically about the problem without interrupting other ideas or thoughts within the meeting. It lets their minds go off on tangents and spark more creative ideas.
So, allowing your more creative team members this time to formulate their ideas will help them be more confident in pitching them in the meeting and moving forwards with better ideas.
There are a few critical steps to facilitate this:
- First, establish the problem you’re solving or the goal you’re trying to achieve.
- Provide accountability. Why do these people need to solve this problem? What goes wrong if you don’t solve it? Or what do you gain by solving it?
- Set clear boundaries for the solution (time, quality, cost, tools etc.)
- Allow individual critical-thinking time.
- Allow subconscious thinking time (if you have more time available or don’t find a solution in the meeting)
- Set a deadline to come up with a solution.
3. Set a task for people to submit a response to
If you have more time, set the problem as homework for team members.
Maybe you have a meeting or send an email to the team explaining the problem. Provide as much context as possible. Then ask team members to send in their ideas before a meeting to discuss them.
If you do it this way, ensure you give people enough time to think about the problem. And if it’s a significant challenge for the business, maybe even incentivise people.
This method works well if you have an initial meeting to identify and discuss the problem. Allowing people to think critically about the situation initially will mean that even if people don’t consciously think about it later, their subconscious will continue to consider the problem and prompt new ideas in a future meeting.
4. Avoid voting for ideas. Appoint a decider or create a points framework.
Voting for ideas seems like a fair way to be democratic about selecting one idea from a few. However, it re-introduces bias into the decision-making process, which you worked hard to remove.
Instead, appoint a “decider”. This person will be responsible for making the final decision. If there are a couple of ideas you like, ask the people who came up with them to develop a proper business case so you can effectively evaluate the cost, people and time commitments.
Additionally, you could create a points framework to help evaluate the ideas. It’s like when you start an RFP to select a supplier. And it can help ensure that when considering ideas, you consider only the factors most important to the desired outcomes, rather than being distracted by an excellent pitch or a flashy idea.
The idea that sticks to the brief is often the best. However, there may be time for other ideas in the future.
5. Make this method the culture
The key to any business is getting good habits to become part of the culture within the company. And it’s all too easy for strong characters to join the business and bully their way into the tried and failed brainstorming session again.
Nobody wants that. Don’t let it happen.
If you’re doing this as a small team, encourage others to host similar sessions or bring their problems to the group. If everyone feels like they can bring their issues to these sessions and get support, it creates that culture of everyone helping each other out. Just be wary of overdoing it.
Otherwise, no one will have time for their day jobs.
How to execute your ideas?
So, if you’ve followed one of these methods, you should have a good idea for your business. Or maybe even lots of good ideas in your business. The next step is often the most difficult; executing it.
Create a project plan
If you haven’t done so yet, you’ll need a plan. A plan will ensure everyone is on the same page regarding the project’s aims, expected outcomes, budgets, and resources.
It should include the following:
- Project stakeholders
- The project board (or sponsor)
- Project manager
- Project team
- The required resources
- Timeline including milestones
- A measure of quality
- A project cadence (how regularly the group will meet to discuss the project)
- Risks & mitigations
- Escalation paths
Having all of these points defined upfront will ensure the whole team is aware of what is involved in the project. It also increases the likelihood of project success. It’s clear to everyone that reads the document what the project’s success will look like in terms of the time, quality and cost metrics assigned.
I could go through each of these points and explain them further, but that’s another post. So, for now, I’ll pick out a couple.
Have clearly defined roles
As a start-up or scale-up, it can be tempting for you as the founder to want to lead all the projects. Try to fight that urge. Try to appoint another project manager, and set up the following roles in the project:
- Project Sponsor: Depending on the project, the project sponsor may be the CEO, the board, or an independent steering committee. This person or group should not be involved in the day-to-day of the project. Instead, they make critical decisions regarding the project and ensure it is on track. They should be involved in the project cadence and regularly review details with the project manager to ensure they meet the time, quality and cost tolerances established in the project plan.
- Project manager: This person is responsible for managing the project day-to-day. They don’t need to be the subject matter expert, but they should coordinate the team to deliver the project to the required quality, cost and time standards. If any issues arise that would take the project out of scope, over budget, below the quality, or above the time allowances set, they should escalate this to the project sponsor.
- Project team: These are the people that will be carrying out the work. Likely, this project or other work will not be their usual job, so be mindful of the time you allocate to them on any project. Their role will be to complete the tasks to the required quality standards by the deadlines set out by the project manager.
Be aware of the Time, Quality Cost Triangle.
You may have heard of the project management triangle already. If not, the below diagram demonstrates how it works. With any project, you ideally want it done quickly to the highest quality at the lowest cost. But, in reality, you can only ever have 2 of these:
- Projects done rapidly and cheaply will be low quality
- Projects that are done quickly and to high quality will be expensive
- And projects are done cheaply and at high quality will take a long time.
When setting up your project, you will likely make some trade-offs to ensure the project is within budgetary and time constraints. Otherwise, we’d all use the most expensive tools, hire the best people and complete everything in 2 weeks.
When managing the project, one of the most critical elements is ensuring that the project meets these 3 targets in the project plan. Or if for any reason this isn’t possible, the project manager raises it with the project sponsor, and expectations are altered and documented in the project plan.
One of the key reasons you have a separate project sponsor is that you have someone impartial who will only intervene if necessary.
Appoint a project manager
Firstly, you’ll want to appoint a project manager. This person will ensure the project is delivered within the time, quality, and cost allowance set out in the project plan.
I can’t stress this enough: if you don’t define the quality, cost and time allowances upfront, the project will fail (although you just won’t know it has failed).
Additionally, the person that came up with the idea should be the project manager.
Except in exceptional circumstances, this is the best way. They’re the most passionate about the idea, will understand it the best, and will see it through to fruition in its truest form. The first exception is if the idea came from a junior employee or someone who does not want to lead it. Alternatively, if the project is significant, you may choose to appoint a specialist or 3rd party to manage it. In these cases, the person responsible for the idea must be involved throughout.
Otherwise, ensure you have an operational plan to support the project with regular review points agreed upon in advance.
Kill the project if necessary.
A big thing I see in start-ups and scale-ups is that you feel that you have to continue with an idea because you’ve agreed on it. But, no. Don’t be afraid to kill the project if you need to.
Sometimes you don’t have all the information when you are brainstorming the idea, and a couple of weeks after sign-off, you discover that the project isn’t feasible. Either it’s too expensive or going to take too long. These things happen.
Alternatively, maybe you didn’t see this happening; the project has been going on for too long, market conditions have changed, and the potential benefit is no longer there.
In any of these situations, the project sponsor must step in and perform a cost/benefit analysis and kill the project if necessary.
Start harnessing creativity in your business.
Now you’ve got some good ideas to start generating fresh new ideas for your business and an idea of how to harness them. As a recap, try not to listen to “the ideas guy” in your business. Creativity is in everyone, but you should avoid the dreaded brainstorming sessions to allow for more considered ideas from less vocal contributors. And by having a clear project plan that keeps everyone aligned, your projects have a greater chance of success.
With this combination, you should be able to bring new, innovative ideas to your business effectively.
To learn more about creativity, business planning, ideas or project management, please reach out to have a chat.