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Stuck in a Creative Rut? 11 Steps to Coax Out New Ideas

June 30, 2016

Inside each of us, Walt Disney believed, are a dreamer, a realist, and a critic. These three perceptual positions underpin the Disney approach to creativity — a process he called “imagineering”. But Disney’s creative method isn’t just for the crafting of squawking, mischievous ducks and heroic princesses; it’s also a useful tactic for any company wanting to ideate, review, and refine concepts for a creative product.

Devin Fountain, Alex Lin and Mike Godlewski

Beauty and the Brainstorm 

To stop staring at the whiteboard and start unearthing better ideas, your team should split creative meetings into three stages. Each requires a different mindset, has its own set of rules, and requires dedication to that phase. Begin as dreamers. In this stage, don’t worry about practicality, finances, or timelines. For 30 minutes, challenge yourselves to be as open-minded as possible, asking, “If we could wave a magic wand and do anything, what would it be?”. Be positive, fervently writing down ideas and encouraging participation.

Then, spend 15 minutes thinking as realists. How practical is each dreamer-stage idea? Is it stuck in absurdity, or does it have a hope of one day becoming reality? Remember, man didn’t always walk on the moon. The realists are the ones who figured out how to make it happen. After selecting the three or four most realistic ideas, it's time to think as critics to punch holes in each concept. Don’t think of it as shooting down your own ideas; think of it as the opportunity to make them stronger as you consider their shortcomings.

The key to Disney’s method is stage-specific diligence. If a critic or realist pipes up too early, it can do damage to the dreamers in the room. Or, if a dreamer tags along with the critics, it might result in risky ideas getting the green light. What we find is that it’s easy to let the realist or critic take control too soon. Being a realist or critic is easy; having big, groundbreaking ideas is hard.

Yeti employees meeting

Take Your Ideas to Infinity — and Beyond

Because of how difficult it can be to come up with that initial set of wildly imaginative ideas, Yeti’s brainstorming rules are designed to ensure that your team has a successful & thorough dreamer stage:

1. Involve the right characters.

A great brainstorm starts with the right brains, so bring stakeholders together to make sure you’re sourcing creative insights from all key areas of the business. These roles are similar to those we involve during design sprints.

• Facilitator. The facilitator must remove himself or herself from the actual brainstorming in order to guide the group in the dreamer state. This person is an essential “referee” who tells the team when to move on or when to explore an idea further.

• Researcher. This person is the resident “Googler” of the group. He or she discovers inspiration and finds similar concepts to support other dreamers.

• Prototyper. This person will lead the transformation from idea to reality in later stages. They will have likely seen dozens of early-stage visionary products, so they're a creative force to be reckoned with.

• Lead engineer/lead designer. These two “builder” roles are vital for the realist and critic stages. But as great creative problem solvers, they’re actually effective dreamers, too.

• Decision maker. This person chooses ideas to take from the dreamer stage to the realist and critic stages, and eventually which ideas to prototype. At Yeti, it’s usually the client, but for an internal meeting it can be a product manager or other lead.

• Customer advocate. Somebody from sales typically fills the customer advocate role. This person has an expert understanding of the voice of the customer, making them well-suited to dreaming up products a customer might purchase.

• Internal business advocate. Marketing or finance can provide insights about the potential business value of an idea. This role shines in the realist and critic roles.

2. Grab materials.

You’ll need markers and butcher paper or Post-it notes. The goal is to organize ideas on a board or wall for everyone to see.

3. Don’t judge.

The dreamer stage isn’t the time to think about budgets and timelines. If the team starts judging ideas too early, it’s the facilitator’s job to pull them back.

4. No negative comments.

As Thumper, Bambi’s rabbit friend, once told us, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. You aren’t helping the group if you are tearing early ideas down.

5. No nitpicking.

As a sales guy, I find myself always thinking about the customer’s reaction to dreamer-stage ideas. If nitpicking happens, recognize that it’s good feedback, but it can also damage the brainstorm’s flow.

6. Use execution only for inspiration.

Execution isn’t important in the dreamer stage, unless it provides inspiration for another idea. For instance, if somebody says, “We’re going to the moon.” You might say, “Well, how are we going to do it?” To which they’d respond, “We need a vehicle. How about a moon lander?”

7. Cost is not a problem.

Let the realist figure out monetary constraints later.

8. Time is not a problem.

Another job for the realist.

9. Stay focused.

Shut the door, turn off devices, and don’t talk about this weekend's plans. Let your mind wander, but just far enough for creative contribution.

10. Don’t make comparisons.

Don’t limit ideas by comparing them to existing products. Fair or not, comparisons categorize an idea, creating artificial limitations. Leave comparisons to the realist and critic — not the dreamer.

11. There is no right answer.

This is the most important rule. If everyone believes this, then it’s easier for the team to generate ideas. If everyone immediately agrees with an idea, it may shut down others. Why bother voicing a new idea if everyone has already settled on one?

Tim Shipman talking

Yeti: The Hercules of Creative Strategy

The best products are those that disrupt a market, and they start at the dreamer stage as “absurd” ideas that just might work. As creative consultants, we love to dream about tomorrow’s technologies, but we’re also realists who can take apart an idea at its seams. Then, if an idea survives our critical gauntlet, we can help your business build it into reality — or virtual reality, if you prefer. So whether you’re dreaming of your company’s first IoT product or, like Disney, want to create whole new worlds, let Yeti bring a little magic to your next creative meeting.

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