Everyone is capable of coming up with new ideas, and some of us do, regularly and with apparent ease.  For others, the experience of creating new ideas is more random.  We all know someone who had a “brainwave” while driving home or we’ve spoken to someone who says they had a good idea once when in the shower.  Sometimes a new idea just seems to hit us in a flash when we’re thinking about something else – or maybe just not thinking at all!

The problem is that these moments of inspiration don’t always happen when we really want or need them.  At times in work, we’re invited to “brainstorm” or exhorted to “think outside the box” – often with quite variable results.

In today’s world of work, probably more than ever before, we will all be required to make a creative or innovation contribution on a more regular basis.  The latest Price Waterhouse Cooper Annual Global CEO Survey states that the top concern of CEOs for 2020 is the innovation skill gap that needs closed to help them navigate the rising tide of uncertainty in all areas of work and business.  This is not an outlier finding – more and more companies are looking for ways to help their staff contribute more relevant new ideas more often – to achieve a step-change in their innovation productivity.

In these circumstances, it seems unlikely that organisations can rely on only the talented few who seem naturally creative.  Also, they can’t just hang around and wait for the rest of us to have our creative spark.  The expectation now is that we need a more reliable, repeatable method to help people produce ideas “on demand”.

At smartcrowds, this is where Brain Fuel comes in.  Brain Fuel is essentially a catalyst for individuals & teams to think creatively about an opportunity or problem and increases their chances of developing potentially innovative solutions.  In our work, we want to ensure that everyone in an organisation can have access to useful Brain Fuel whenever they need it and therefore are able to create more new ideas as and when required.

Author Russell L. Ackoff described creativity as “…the ability to recognise self-imposed constraints, remove them, and explore the consequences of their removal.”  This definition recognises that when it comes to generating new ideas, it’s often not what we don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what we do know (or think we know) that gets in our way.  Ackoff’s definition can be effectively illustrated by the well-known “nine dots” exercise (see diagram).

The challenge to connect all nine dots with four straight lines without taking your pen off the page initially foxes most people who are confronting it for the first time.

The assumption that most people make is that the nine dots form a square and that their own lines shouldn’t “break out” of that shape.  When it’s pointed out that this constraint is of their own making, most people then see many ways of solving the problem by literally “thinking outside the box”.  The root of our creative difficulties lies right here – most of us will impose our own constraints about a situation that don’t need to be there, and these constraints dramatically reduce our ability to see solutions or new ideas.

This is especially true when we are busy or under pressure.  We are much less likely to see things from a different perspective when we have looming deadlines or the prospect of facing an impatient client or boss.

This “limiting assumptions” principle was at play when a breakthrough was made in the design and manufacture of women’s swimwear.  Design of women’s swimwear was long constrained by technology – designs/materials/decoration that would endure repeated swimming in salty or chlorinated water.  The completely obvious assumption was that most women do a lot of swimming in their swimsuits.

It was discovered, however, that 90% of women’s swimsuits never get wet (except in the laundry)!  This opened up a whole new world of materials and designs that would stand up to sunning but only minimal swimming.  Who would have thought that anyone would buy a swimsuit marked “dry clean only”?

Brain Fuel, then, is a reliable way of exposing potentially limiting constraints and allowing us the chance to look at a situation – problem or opportunity – differently for the purpose of generating new ideas.  At its most simple, Brain Fuel can be a random item that we try to mentally connect to our challenge.  The act of connecting a random item to our situation can lead us to challenge assumptions that we may have been making and in turn open up opportunities for new ideas.

In his book “Total Creativity”, David Tanner describes how scientists at DuPont regularly used a technique called Random Word, conceived by creativity expert Edward de Bono, to confront challenges in the development of both Lycra and Kevlar.  The scientists would simply use a dictionary to generate a random word that, by definition, had no obvious connection to their challenge, and then use this as a steppingstone to lots of new ideas.  Tanner claims that this method greatly accelerated the development of both of these highly innovative and successful new materials.

In our experience, using techniques like Random Word can often be more productive when the word we use initially feels very difficult to connect to our challenge.  We talk about the brain “having to turn summersaults” in order to try to connect two seemingly unconnectable concepts.  This is good as far as we’re concerned.  T his mental act can feel like we are distracting the brain from its usual way of thinking.  Indeed, we also sometimes describe Brain Fuel as an “attention directing device” where we are trying to direct the brain’s attention away from its normal thought process.

Another way of re-directing attention in the creative process is to introduce Brain Fuel in the form of learning.  In this situation, Brain Fuel is likely to be a new insight, a new piece of information, or just new news related to the challenge.  Brain Fuel here could be based on observations of a system or product in use, or analysis of failures, or organised data taken from a study of some kind.  If the information leads the individual to say “I didn’t know that” then it has the potential to be useful Brain Fuel.  In this way the effect is the same as with Random Word and other similar techniques – it helps expose unnecessary limiting constraints and provides us with an opportunity to explore ideas we wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

The swimsuit exercise is such an example where it was a study that revealed that a very high proportion of women’s swimwear was never used for swimming.  This data clearly challenged a completely obvious assumption – so obvious that it was, in effect, invisible to those working on the challenge.

When supporting organisations to develop lots of ideas, we suggest they gather lots of Brain Fuel from many different sources and have it presented in a variety of different formats.  For a focused challenge we would usually suggest individuals and teams undertake a range of research, exploration, and learning activities, the results of which are then shared with the wider staff group.  We’d usually recommend that Brain Fuel is gathered from activities including staff interviews, customer feedback and complaints analysis, observations of product/process in use, supplier information, competitor analysis, technology developments and interesting findings from non-related industries or companies.

In the event that the challenge involves some set-piece ideas sessions, then Brain Fuel can also be introduced in the form of facilitated creative-thinking exercises.

The stark reality for all of us though is that most ideas fail.  The best way to ensure we have success with innovation then is to have lots of ideas.  In these circumstances Brain Fuel plays a vital part in ensuring our people can produce an ongoing stream of new ideas -without having to provide showers in the workplace!