Friday, August 7, 2009

Imagine the Possibilities

Developing a solution to a creative assignment means just that: developing A solution – just one. So that means we’re eliminating an entire universe of other potential solutions. What gems are we leaving behind?

I suppose it’s human nature that over time we learn what works for us in various situations, and we become less aware and less concerned about our options. It is after all, a lot of work to consider every option. We also learn (the hard way) when certain options don’t work, so we tend to narrow the options we consider. We get into mental ruts by following our career and academic disciplines. As we go through life, our brains are also known to lose their flexibility and the natural curiosity we develop as small children. It all subtracts from our ability to think creatively.

The good news is that we can actually do something about it. The remedy is mental exercise. But unlike physical exercise that is largely repetitive, mental exercise is all about challenging our minds to do new and eclectic things. As much as we might enjoy the mental workout of sudoku, crossword puzzles or other structured games, they probably aren’t going to stimulate our creative thinking abilities. Mental exercise is about looking at things in completely new ways.

By now you may be thinking “Oh that’s nice. I just need to start doing ‘eclectic mental exercises’ and I’ll be able to solve this creative problem I’m facing that’s due like yesterday.” Mental exercise is something can work right now with any kind of creative challenge. As a matter of fact it’s a method that should be a regular part of any creative professional’s work process. And like physical exercise, the more we do it, the easier it becomes and the greater our abilities become.

My experience has taught me that the number one barrier to creativity is limited thinking. It’s so tempting and easy to latch onto the first decent idea that comes along, or to do yet one more iteration of the same solution we used yesterday and a thousand times before that. Wayne Gretsky famously said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” and I say you miss 100% of the creative solutions you don’t consider. So the trick is to take the time – and force ourselves if necessary – to seriously consider as many different solutions as we can. Just try to imagine the possibilities. This doesn’t need to be a time-consuming process, but it will be some of the most valuable time we put into the project.

Trying a lot of different options can be tough for some people because of their work process. For example, graphic designers who go straight to a graphics program on their computer tend to limit their thinking to what the program does best. It’s much better to start with a pencil and a sketchbook because thumbnail sketches are faster for trying a lot of very different ideas. For writers, jumping in and filling a page with text can be just as limiting. Personally, I’ve found that mind maps are a good way to work out broad options before committing words to the page. In both of these examples, the trick is to start with a method that allows us to quickly consider a wide range of options before becoming invested in the solution. Once we start down the path of a solution, it becomes more and more difficult to let go – even if we imagine a better solution while we’re working. So the trick is to allow ourselves to imagine a lot of different possible solutions and then follow through with the one we think is best.

So now the skeptics may be thinking “Great. Now all I have to do is be sure to have a lot of great ideas. And how is that supposed to happen?” This is where it gets interesting. If we keep thinking about things in the same way, we’re going to keep having the same ideas. The trick is to stimulate ourselves to think differently and to do that in as many ways as we can. This isn’t as difficult as it might sound.

With any problem-solving process, the starting point is always to develop an understanding of the essence of the problem. This is actually more difficult than it sounds and will be a topic for another time.

"A well stated problem, is a problem half solved"

- John Dewey, Philosopher

Perhaps the greatest creative method of all is to open up our minds and take criticism as a golden insight to make our work better. The annoyance of an unexpected criticism can actually be great fuel for fresh thinking.

Sometimes I like to pick up a magazine from a completely different field while I’m wresting with a creative problem. It’s amazing how I can find fresh ideas this way – but I have to thinking about the problem for it to work. This is a great example of preparing my mind with an essential understanding of the problem so that I’ll recognize possible solutions when I encounter them.

"Chance favors the prepared mind."

 -  Louis Pasteur

Some people are naturally good at challenging their own thinking to come up with new perspectives and new ideas. For the rest of us mortals, a little prompting can go a long way. One method I’ve used is to put together a list of simple ideas to prompt myself to consider the problem from different perspectives. Here is a sample list.

  • Change the emotional tone
  • Change the time frame.
  • Change the size: make it huge, tiny, etc.
  • Change the color: make it colorful, monochromatic, etc.
  • Think like a child, alien, hipster, banker, cave man, etc.

And the list goes on… Add any ideas that you think will help you look at the project with a fresh point of view

If you’d like something a little more ready-to-use, here’s one of my favorite resources. Naomi Epel is a writer who had a unique opportunity to interview a lot of great writers to learn how they stimulate their own creative thinking. The result is a book and a deck of cards called The Observation Deck. Just shuffle the cards, pull one out and you’ll have a great suggestion for a technique to stimulate a new perspective. Even though this “book” is mainly about writers, the principles apply to any creative field. The Observation Deck is great addition to any creative professional’s library. It’s stimulating and a lot of fun to use.

A few years ago I met a very interesting marketing consultant named J. Howard Shelov. When I met him he was already up in years, but he was full of energy and great ideas. One of the things that I most remember about him was how important he believed it was to keep your mind open and your thinking fresh. To drive home his point, every year he deliberately changed some life-long habit just to help him keep from getting into ruts. That particular year he had changed from wearing boxer shorts to briefs – which I took his word for without demonstration. The point is that it’s important to take initiative to keep our thinking fresh.

No matter what method you use, just be sure to imagine the possibilities. And maybe even change your underwear.

Please contact me with your thoughts and comments, and don’t be afraid to ask me to come into your business to help you achieve a greater level of excellence.

Copyright 2009, Billy Pittard

1 comment:

  1. Gearing up mentally to start my own business and this specific blog is a beginning for me. After years of working in corporate blandness and feeling the creative energy drain from me, I'm so excited to begin the process of imaging the possibilities. Once I see them and feel them with the big picture grasped, that's when pure joy begins. Thanks for creating this blog and for caring about others who need what you have to offer. Much appreciated.