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An innovation manager says to their team, “I really want to be inspired with new, original, creative and outside-the-box ideas. Come on guys, I’m open to anything.” 

A hush falls over the room.

But why not? The manager is open to anything, right?

Well, it’s like this.

When someone asks you for creative ideas, you tend to think twice before saying anything, and you ask yourself: ‘Is my idea even creative?’ Maybe you think it is creative but does the other person think so too? Since you don’t want that person to say, “yes, but that’s not exactly a creative idea,” you instantly dismiss every idea that comes to mind. The phrase ‘I’m open to anything’, which in principle should provide ample space for all ideas, is crushed by the criterion that the idea must be new, original, creative and outside-the-box.

Disastrous

Firstly, using criteria at the point when you are coming up with ideas is extremely awkward. Given that a set of criteria causes people to start judging their own ideas while they are coming up with them. As I wrote in my column on brainstorming, making judgments while ideas are being generated is disastrous for creativity.

In the second place, very often the first ideas you come up with are not really creative anyway. They may be good, but they are not original and therefore not creative. However, those ideas do have to be put out there if you want to get to your original ideas. Your top-of-mind ideas take up mental space. You need that mental space to come up with original ideas. So by directly asking for creativity, you immediately create a blockade. 

So what can you ask for then?

You could ask for more ideas. Generally, ideas come in three waves: the standard ideas, the crazy ideas, and a combination of the two: the original and usable ideas. In a lot of idea generation sessions, participants don’t get beyond the first wave, they give up too easily. A new wave of ideas has to get rolling, sometimes that can take some time. This is a great opportunity for a facilitator to introduce a technique that leads to more ideas.

Associations

You could ask for other kinds of ideas. That way, you set another train of associations in motion. If, for example, you want to introduce innovations in sustainable building structures, and your ideas are in the box of ‘use wood instead of concrete for housing construction’, it is sometimes difficult to come up with ideas that are not wood-related. This is also an excellent opportunity for a facilitator to intervene. 

The Internet is chock full of good techniques that consciously encourage creativity. However, it is also full of duds. Look for techniques that spark more ideas or techniques that fuel other kinds of ideas. If the technique calls for creativity, then you can give it a wide berth.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Derek jan Fikkers, Eugene Franken, Katleen Gabriels, PG Kroeger, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.

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