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How we get you to let your ideas flow

One of the biggest challenges for creativity facilitators is getting novice or apprentice ideators to simply let their ideas flow out of their minds and onto paper. Why is that? What are the reasons that “un-flow” creative thinking? And what strategies do we use at Thinkergy to help would-be ideators counter these limiting factors in ideation activities? 

What’s the problem?

Give a creative challenge, such as “How to make use of a brick?” to young children in late kindergarten or early primary school. They will provide you with a constant stream of ideas and produce 20-30 ideas within 2 minutes. Now give the same challenge to a group of adults, and you will have only a few people reaching double-digit idea scores. Why is that? 

Young kids shoot ideas out without concern if they make sense, stick to well-established rules, stay within specific budgets, can be implemented within a particular timeline, and so on. They just enjoy the creative moment and let ideas flow out of their minds.

In contrast, grown-up ideators tend to worry about all these things while ideating, thus preventing them from getting into a fluent style of creative thinking. But what is the key criterion to evaluate how effective an Ideation effort was? Fluency of creative thinking, or in other words, the number of ideas that one or more ideators can produce in a given amount of time.

Why do we not think fluently in Ideation? What are the reasons that “un-flow” creative thinking?

Unlike young kids, most ideators secretly judge their creative thoughts on whether an idea is “safe” to state or write down. Their strict inner critic rejects any idea that doesn’t stay within certain safe confines of what a sensible, reasonable, and “right” idea should look like. And of course, what creative thoughts get shot down first? Any idea that is a bit more unusual, bold, and maybe even crazy or wild. 

Interestingly, by giving their inner critic free rein during Ideation, ideators violate the first three ground rules of Ideation that they are told before the start of the ideation activities: 

The four ground rules of Ideation:

1) Defer judgment. No killing of ideas. 

2) Go for quantity because quantity breeds quality. 

3) The wilder, the better. Shoot for unusual, silly, funny, crazy, wild, off-the-wall ideas. 

4) Combine and improve on ideas.

So when ideators are aware of the ground rules and know that “in theory,” it makes sense to follow them, why are they still unable to do so and, in particular, rein in their inner critic? They fear that other members of an ideation group secretly judge them negatively if they state an idea that is a bit out of the ordinary, a phenomenon that researchers labeled “evaluation apprehension” and identified as a key reason why most brainstorming groups don’t produce many (and typically only “acceptable”) ideas. 

To sum up, most adult ideators are unable to engage in fluent creative thinking because of judgment that they are told not to engage in, but are unable to stop because of their sense of self-importance and fear of ridicule by others. But judgment is like driving with one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brake. You move forward in a go-stop-go-stop-go-stop fashion and don’t make much headway (i.e., don’t create many ideas). 

In contrast, children drive with one foot on the gas pedal and the other off the brake while doing Ideation. They have fun with the creative challenge and let many ideas flow from their unconstrained minds, including many interesting and wild ones. 

And what are strategies to encourage fluent creative thinking?

In our Thinkergy creativity training and Ideation workshop sessions, we have several tricks to help ideators think more fluently during ideation. Here are some things we do to get the creative juices of ideators flowing.

1. Do a creative warm-up exercise.

Before the start of Ideation activities, we do an easy, non-serious creative “warm-up” exercise to set the minds of the ideators into a creative mode. We sometimes ask the group to do some free association using an exciting start word. At other times, we charge them to list verbal and non-verbal idea breeders and idea killers-statements (and co-use this exercise to highlight the negative impact of judgment on the one hand and the positive energy that we want a group to exhibit during ideation on the other hand). 

2. Play a round of free-association rugby.

A more advanced variation of this warm-up exercise is playing a round of Thinkergy Free-Association Rugby:

  • A player can “run with the ball” for as long as she can fluently add words to a word association chain that he builds.
  • Once the flow stops, the participant must immediately back-pass the ball to another player, who needs to continue free-associating with the next word.
  • If someone loses the flow, they have dropped the ball, and any player from the same or the other team can pick up the ball and continue with the word association.
    • If you like, have the player who “drops the ball” and loses it to the other team do ten push-ups as “penalty” for not thinking fluently.
  • The winning team is the one that can first reach the other side of the room three times.

3. Reward idea quantity in practice exercises.

In a Thinkergy creativity training, we give out individual points (called “Action Tags”) to each member of the team who achieves the highest idea score in each creativity practice exercise (such as ideating using Metaphors, visiting Other Worlds, responding to What If-questions, and so on). If a team repeatedly misses out on Action Tags, its members tend to change their behavior and begin thinking more fluently (and less judgmentally) to increase their odds of winning the next round (as most delegates are eager to collect the tags).

4. Reward individual ideators suggesting unusual or wild ideas.

Moreover, at each exercise, we ask if someone has thought of a particularly wild idea or an idea that they consider more unusual or out of the ordinary. Then, we reward these ideators with individual action tags for suggesting these ideas (which tends to encourage other ideators in the subsequent exercises to suppress their inner critic and let unusual and wild ideas flow out of their minds, too). 

5. Set an idea quota.

In real-life (or simulated) innovation projects, we give out to the teams an ambitious yet achievable idea quota at the beginning of the Ideation activities. We tell the ideators that the only chance for them to hit the quota is if everyone silences their inner critic and lets ideas flow out unconstrained. Then, at every station, we tell them how many ideas each member (and the team) should write down to stay on track to achieving the target quota.

6. Remember rule number 6.

What if nothing of this helps to quieten the nagging voice of their inner critic? Then, we might tell everyone to always “Remember Rule No. 6” (based on a beautiful story shared by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander in their book The Art of Possibility):

“Rule No. 6:
Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.”

After all, inner judgment is nothing but the voice of your Ego, which is your harshest critic and the arch-enemy of your innate creativity. So, we remind ideators not to take themselves so seriously and drop their Ego-driven sense of self-importance. Let’s remind ourselves that within the grand context of the history of the universe, we’re probably not even worth a tiny footnote. 

Conclusion: Getting you to let your creativity flow takes time and practice

We strongly recommend companies that are serious about genuinely building up their managers’ and employees’ creative confidence and competence to invest time and money in a 3-day creativity training. Why? This period allows us to gradually build creative confidence over days 1 and 2, teach foundational creative know-how on day 2, and then practice the learned creative mindsets and techniques with a simulated practice case on a highly dynamic day 3. With this step-by-step approach, delegates learn how to think creatively (competence) and gradually gain creative confidence to let their ideas flow (no matter what).

And then, what if you wanted to take your talents’ acquired creative competence and confidence from good to great? Consider following the training half a year later with a real-life innovation or creative problem-solving project to apply the learned creative mindsets, methods, and tools to your own company challenge and firmly anchor the learnings and new creative ways of thinking and doing things. 

  • Now that the pandemic has been turning into an  endemic in most countries and the economy is picking up again, wouldn’t it be great to add fresh energy, team spirit, and creativity to your teams with a highly dynamic Thinkergy creativity training workshops (based on our proprietary X-IDEA innovation method and thinking toolbox)? Make it a 3-day training if you want to build up creative confidence and competence in your delegates and give them a chance to learn how to become fluent creative thinkers.
  • And why not anchor the learnings and produce tangible innovation results with bottom-line impact by doing an X-IDEA Innovation Project?
  • Contact us to tell us more about your plans to reinvigorate your teams and get them out of their pandemic-induced hibernation mode as the economy rebounds. Then, we will share our ideas on how we might creatively  support you in achieving your business agenda and growth targets.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.