Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in
Wednesday 20 April 2011
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your twice-monthly (or thereabouts)
newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation
please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your
comments and feedback are also always welcome.
Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found
at the end of this newsletter.
I have been playing with Twitter the past few weeks and am still trying to
1) find my voice there and 2) ensure I add mostly meaningful noise to an already
very noisy place. My Twitter name is CreativeJeffrey and you can find me at
ANTI-CONVENTIONAL THINKING (ACT)
Have you tried brainstorming, ideas campaigns, crowdsourcing and other idea
generation activities only to be disappointed by the results? Does it seem most
corporate brainstorm sessions generate little more than pat phrases comprising
the management’s favourite buzz words? Does your idea management system
fill up largely with predictable ideas that at best might result in incremental
innovations? If so, you are not alone.
The truth is, many of these creative exercises – and in spite of what
anyone tells you about innovation, idea generation is a creative activity that
can eventually result in innovation – are poorly conceived. They are designed
to generate as many ideas as possible in the hopes that once the obvious, conventional
solutions to problems are exhausted, more creative, unconventional ideas will
come to the surface. Yet in truth, the only time this happens is when highly
creative people are participating in the brainstorm.
Fortunately, there is a solution that allows normally creative people to behave
more like highly creative people and so generate better ideas. I call this method
Anti-Conventional Thinking (ACT). It requires that you throw away many of the
rules you have learned about brainstorming and idea generation.
What is ACT?
ACT is an approach to creative thinking that involves purposefully rejecting
conventional thinking in order to generate unconventional ideas. It seems obvious,
doesn’t it? Yet it is an approach that people do not consciously follow,
but which highly creative people subconsciously do all the time.
Think about it. Creative ideas can be defined as new, unconventional ideas
that are formed by combining two or more established ideas in new ways. By definition,
then, creative ideas are unconventional. So, it only makes sense to seek them
when looking for ideas. To do this, we need to tweak some of the fundamental
rules of brainstorming. But first, we need to be clear on what it means to be
How to Be Anti-Conventional
You are doubtless familiar with conventional and unconventional thinking. Conventional
thinking is the usual way of thinking and doing things in your organisation
and in your industry; in your family and your community; in your society and
your culture. Conventional thinking tends to lead to conforming to cultural
norms in behaviour and thinking. Unconventional thinking, of course, is the
exact opposite. It it taking a point of view or behaving in a way that is contrary
to cultural norms.
Being anti-conventional means to be purposefully unconventional. That is to
consider what is the conventional reaction to any situation and explicitly doing
something different. Being anti-conventional can be as simple as saying “Hey
there!” rather than the traditional “good morning” to your
colleagues in the morning.
If most of your colleagues drive to work, you can be anti-conventional by bicycling
or walking to work.
If the usual way to present results to management is in a PowerPoint presentation
of bullet points, you can do your presentation in a slide-show of artistic images
or, better yet, do away with PowerPoint all together.
However, being anti-conventional does not mean being rude, dishonest or unethical.
Sure, you might consider unethical approaches in the idea generation phase,
but only in order to devise ethical approaches that might be inspired by unethical
alternatives. In fact, the best means of getting away with being anti-conventional
is to be especially polite and well mannered.
Although we are mostly concerned about applying anti-conventional thinking
to the idea generation process, purposefully being a little anti-conventional
on a daily basis will help you to think more creatively and find creative solutions
With this in mind, let’s look at how ACT can help you be far more creative
The Cult of the Idea
The first thing we have to learn to accept is that the quantity of ideas
generated in any event is totally irrelevant. Creative problem solving
(CPS) experts like to stress the importance of listing is many suggestions as
possible during the idea generation phase of a brainstorm. And so many idea
jams, crowdsourcing and other idea generaton exercises rate their success based
on the number of ideas generated. But the truth is, 100,000 ideas generated
is a waste of time and resources if you only implement 10 of them and they are
all incremental improvements. On the other hand, generating only five great
ideas but implementing them all as a single multi-idea should be considered
a screaming success.
But, most corporate idea generation exercises, whether small brainstorming
sessions or massive crowdsourcing extravaganzas are designed to generate lots
and lots of conventional ideas. They typically succeed. Moreover, the classic
brainstorming rule of no criticising of ideas, which is designed to avoid inhibiting
people from suggesting radical ideas can actually result in the inhibition of
radical ideas. We will get back to this in a moment.
Most brainstorming events and ideas campaigns are based around a creative challenge
or a problem. However, these challenges are typically ill thought out and, even
when they are carefully considered, fail to inspire creative thinking. Typical
What new features might we add to product X?
How might we cut costs in our logistics system?
Such challenges fail to inspire truly creative thought and invite highly conventional
solutions. Instead, challenges should inspire people to think. Consider these
In what totally new and unexpected ways could we deliver value to our
How might we revolutionise our logistics system?
It should be clear that such challenges will have the opposite effect to traditional
corporate brainstorms where people suggest lots of conventional ideas, but are
afraid of being mocked for suggesting wild and crazy ideas. With these examples,
you are actually encouraging unconventional ideas and discouraging the conventional.
But why should the challenge remain the same throughout the brainstorm or ideas
campaign? If you look at truly creative people, like artists, at work, you will
see that they continually re-frame their focus. In effect, they create sub-challenges
as they define solutions to their challenges. A sculptor carving away at a piece
of wood to make an abstract female figure will likely be inspired by the wood
as she works, changing the proportions and positioning of the figure. The end
result will still be the female body, but the details may well be different
from her initial vision.
Comic teams preparing scripts for a television show will start with a theme
for the show, but if someone comes up with a brilliant joke, it may result in
taking the characters in a direction unanticipated before the joke was written
into the script.
Likewise, when solving corporate problems, you need to be flexible with the
challenge. Of course you need to maintain the big picture. But why not create
subchallenges as creative participants generate great, unconventional ideas?
After all, incredible ideas can change your outlook on the challenge you are
Unconventional Ideas Only, Please
As individuals and in teams, normally creative people tend to squelch outrageous
ideas because they fear those ideas may be stupid. Worse, they fear that may
face ridicule or reprimand for sharing wildly unconventional ideas. This is
doubly true if they are forced to share those ideas with someone higher up the
To allay this fear, Alex Osborn (who invented brainstorming) rightfully included
the rule that Hence that you should never criticise ideas in a brainstorm.
But the truth is, unless a brainstorm comprises highly creative people (and
it is important to note that Mr. Osborn ran an advertising agency, so his pioneering
brainstorms surely did include highly creative people), participants will squelch
their own outrageous ideas before sharing them with colleagues This is doubly
true if the creative challenge they are addressing is conventional in nature.
This is because we all have inner censors that review our ideas before taking
action on them. These inner censors are a necessary part of the mind. They analyse
ideas and prevent us from doing things that could get us in trouble. For instance,
if you are urgently in need of money, your inner censor will (I hope), prevent
you from taking action on an idea to mug the rich old lady who lives across
the road and always carries lots of cash in her handbag. Likewise, this censor
also prevents us from saying rude things in polite company. Sadly, it also prevents
many of us from suggesting outrageous ideas at work for fear of real or imagined
So, rather than push people to turn off their inner censors, which is unnatural
and difficult, it makes more sense to use those censors to stop conventional
ideas and let unconventional ideas pass. How? Simply start with an unconventional
challenge and then establish a rule that ONLY unconventional ideas are allowed.
Moreover, rather than prohibit criticism, welcome it! But, there should be
- Criticism is to focus on conventional ideas and boring ideas.
- Criticism will always be formulated politely and respectfully.
- Whenever an idea is criticised, the person who suggested the idea and anyone
else in the group must be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to defend the idea.
This will serve several purposes that will result in fewer ideas than traditional
brainstorming, but those ideas will be far more creative. Firstly, by rejecting
conventional ideas – which will be obvious to anyone in the company anyway
– you reduce the administrative overload that comes from having to review
lots of mediocre ideas.
Secondly, by allowing people to defend their ideas and their colleagues’
ideas, you push people to think in more depth about their ideas and toimprove
them in ways that make them more viable for your company.
Your Goal Is Not Quantity. It Is Unconventionality
The key thing to bear in mind here is that unlike in brainstorming, your goal
is not to generate as many ideas as possible in hopes that a few will be good
ideas. Your goal is to generate a few unconventional ideas that could make a
This is why the process is called “anti-conventional” thinking.
Your aim is to go against the conventional and be unconventional. Be a rebel.
Be different. Be Creative. An insane idea that results in a breakthrough innovation
is worth far more than a dozen small ideas that result in incremental innovation.
ACT Also Works Solo
ACT works just fine when you are trying to generate ideas on your own. Simply
follow the same rules:
- Frame a challenge that pushes you to think unconventionally
- Allow yourself to re-frame the challenge and introduce sub-challenges as
you define the solution in your ideas.
- Reject conventional ideas. They are too easy.
- Criticise your own ideas, but when you do you must then try to defend the
ideas. Sometimes this will result in new and more radical ideas. More often
it will make you rethink the original idea and determine how you could improve
it. These are good things.
In fact, this is essentially what creative people such as artists, musicians,
writers and others do all the time. They purposefully reject conventional solutions
for unconventional solutions. Pablo Picasso did not ask himself how he could
paint better portraits. Rather he asked outrageous questions such as how could
he show three dimensional subjects from multiple viewpoints on a two dimensional
canvas? His solution to this problem was to invent, along with Georges Braque,
cubism: a radically new and extremely creative art movement.
Be Creative at Every Step
To a great extent, ACT requires that you be creative and unconventional at every
step of the idea generation process, from defining challenges that encourage
unconventional thinking to generating unconventional ideas to defending those
ideas and their unconventionality. Again, this is how highly creative people
do it naturally. The better you become at emulating this process the better
you become at being exceptionally creative.
Only Scratched the Surface
This article only scratches the surface of ACT. I plan to develop the concept
over the next few months and will doubtless address it again in Report 103 and
elsewhere. In the meantime, as always, I
value your thoughts on the topic. Please share them with me!
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HOLIDAY
Last week, my patchwork family and I took a holiday in Brittany in France.
It is a beautiful and inspiring place where we spent time walking along the
blustery, quite shore before the tourist season turned it into a crowded beach.
We also visited Mont St-Michel, which has been described as “the wonder
of the Western world” and is wrenchingly beautiful, as well as a number
of other beautiful spots.
However, my family is perhaps a little unusual. I am a single father of two
boys. My girlfriend, who also joined us, is not the mother of my children and
lives in another city. We were all born in a different countries and speak various
languages as our mother tongues. My boys, are perfectly bilingual English-Dutch
and easily switch languages while talking between themselves. My girlfriend
is German, but speaks excellent English while I am a native English speaker.
As the common link in all this, I feel a responsibility to ensure everyone
is happy. I also have to take full responsibility for the children and looking
after their needs. As a result, between enjoying the holiday and looking after
everyone’s needs, I did not have a single moment to think about work,
organisational innovation, creativity theory or innovation process management
software at all. Bliss!!
But, after we returned, unpacked, sent the children off to spend some time
with their mother and my girlfriend fled to her quiet flat in Antwerp and I
started catching up with work, my mind quickly returned to the challenges of
work open projects and projects waiting to get started. Better still, it was
full of new ideas and some solutions to problems that had been pestering me
Clearly, something happened in my mind for it to spew forth with so much useful
stuff! I suppose it is simply refreshed from a terrific holiday with the people
This is an important reminder that we need true holidays from time to time.
Holidays in which we disconnect from work and professional projects and spend
time with our families (if we have them), with loved ones, with friends or even
alone. We need to turn off, or at least severely limit professional email and
telephone use. We need to focus on relaxation and doing low stress things that
By allowing our minds to disconnect from work for a week or so, we give them
a chance to recharge, we allow them to process information quietly in the background,
we bring in new inspirations and ideas and more.
As a result, when our minds return to work, they are refreshed, inspired and
ready for new creative challenges. Any time and productivity lost during the
week out of the loop is more than made up for with new ideas, new solutions
to problems and a recharged brain.
This is double important for business owners, independents and others who so
easily end up working long hours and never entirely disconnecting from work.
IMAGINATION CLUB LAUNCHES IN AUSTRALIA
I am delighted to inform you that an Imagination Club is starting up in Brisbane
Australia. Stuart Ayling, the managing director of Marketing Nous (http://www.marketingnous.com.au/)
has set up The Imagination Club Australia and their first event will be held
on 16 May. If you are in Brisbane on that date, check it out. It only costs
AU$10 and will surely be an experience. You can visit the Imagination Club Australia
web site at http://imaginationclubau.wordpress.com/
What the Heck Is the Imagination Club?
My good friend Andy Whittle and I started up the Imagination Club in Brussels
a few years ago. Conceptually it is very simple. Twice every month we hold a
short, experimental workshop that is somehow creative. The workshop may address
creativity as a subject or it might simply be creative in its approach.
However, the important thing is that the workshops are limited to 90 minutes
and are experimental. We do not want sales pitches or demonstrations. But we
welcome experienced facilitators who want to try out something new in a receptive
environment, we embrace people who want to move into the training and facilitation
business and need a platform to try out their skills and we adore people who
have no interest in professional training, but who wish to share something about
which they are passionate.
We are proud that two members, who have since developed successful businesses
(which involve training workshops), did their first ever workshops at the Club.
As a result, a Brussels Imagination Club workshop is always an experience.
Sometimes it may run with professional smoothness. Sometimes it may be a bit
rough as the result of lack of experience. But we always learn something –
often in unexpected ways.
Not a Business Networking Activity, but a Place to Meet Cool People
Our mailing list now boasts 300 people and a typical workshop includes between
15 and 30 participants. Because we operate in English in a very international
city, there is always a large variety of nationalities present. If there are
20 participants, they typically represent a dozen nationalities. So, we meet
some fascinating people from all over the place.
The Imagination Club is not a business networking club. People come to make
friends and meet new people to enrich themselves rather than to make a sale
or get new leads.
As you can probably tell, I am very proud of what Andy and I have started up,
but which has come alive thanks to the wonderful people who participate twice
Moreover, we are delighted that Stuart is starting up an Imagination Club in
Brisbane. We are sure that it will be different to the Brussels Imagination
Club in many ways. That just makes it more exciting and, most importantly, is
keeping with the Imagination Club’s underlying theme of experimentation
You Could Run an Imagination Club Too
If you would like to enjoy running something as rewarding as the Imagination
Club, let me know. We would be happy to advise and support you. The Imagination
Club is informal, non-profit activity and jolly good fun!
To learn more about the Brussels Imagination Club, visit http://www.imaginationclub.be/
or to participate in next Wednesday’s workshop, go to http://www.imaginationclub.org/brussels/event20110427.php
We’d love to welcome you!
What do you think of the crazy picture of me they have posted on the South
African Innovation Summit web site?
I will be speaking and delivering a workshop at this exciting event at the
end of August and am very much looking forward to it as well as meeting some
people I have corresponded with for years, but whom I have never met in person.
What about you? I’d love to meet you too. If you live in South Africa
or plan to be in Johannesburg in late August, join this event! http://www.innovationsummit.co.za/)
Just a couple of weeks after that and I will be off to Portugal to deliver
a workshop at the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. This is
the biggest and most exciting European creativity and innovation conference
and I am honoured to be participating. Moreover, Portugal was my home for a
while in the mid 80s and it is always a treat to revisit the country. If you
are in Portugal or want an excuse to spend some time in the Algarve (the beautiful,
beach resort part of Portugal) in September, come join the event! I’d
love to meet you and there will be much to learn. http://www.eaci.net/eccixii/index.php
And, of course, I can almost always be found at the Brussels Imagination Club
every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. More information at http://www.imaginationclub.org/brussels
I could also be speaking or delivering workshops in your company. If you and
your colleagues want to learn how to use anti-conventional thinking (ACT –
see article above) in order to be more creative, if you want to train your managers
to be more receptive to creativity and more participative in your innovation
initiative or if you need to plan an innovation process based on strategy, contact
me today to discuss your needs. It would be a treat to work with you. More importantly,
think how much more value your company could deliver with more creativity and
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