Break the ruler!

I hear people say “break the rules” all the time, when talking about creativity.  I agree breaking the rules is certainly one of the ways to be creative.  You could argue that if you don’t break some rule somewhere, can it really be creative?

I absolutely believe in breaking the rules. As long as you’re willing to break the ruler, that is.

Let me explain by walking you through what happens in a good many of the brainstorming sessions my fellow Before & After creative thinking coaches and I facilitate.  Typically we distill the best, freshest ideas throughout the session, building our short list, as it were.  At the end of the day we revisit this short list, which if we’ve done our job right, is rather long, and we do a final distillation to get to THE short list, THE action list.

The problem that too often happens is that when distilling to this final list, people often forget to break the ruler that measures these rule-breaking ideas.  The effect is that the freshest new ideas frequently get filtered out in the final screening process.  So much for breaking the rules.

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What busy people can learn about creativity from bumblebees.

You know my favorite way of being creative?  I call it “bumblebee sex.” It’s an effective, efficient, perfectly natural way to think creatively. Particularly for when you’re crazy busy.  Which is like – what? – 90% of the time?

You’ve seen bumblebees going from flower to flower. They think they’re sampling the buffet of sweet nectars from the garden. The flowers know better. They’re creating.

That’s a great way to work out a creative challenge. Or better yet, a few challenges at once.

Besides being one of the most effective and efficient paths to fresh ideas, and in spite of it’s seeming on-again/off-again appearance, this method is also a pretty fast way to find creative solutions.

Like my little winged friend in the striped jacket who buzzes from rose to daisy, daisy to mum, working on this creative challenge, then that one, then another, then back to one of an earlier one, and so forth… Buzzing around… Picking up pollen here, depositing it there… It’s really quite a dynamic way of bringing creativity to your thinking.

We all already do this to one degree or another.  It’s what we’re doing when we’re not applying direct creative energy to a problem.  The between moments, of which we have many.  But do we do it consciously?  Do we make it a part of our creative process?

This way of thinking doesn’t cost a nickel and it doesn’t take much time. Actually it usually saves tons of time. Plant your creative topic on the back burner of your mind, then go do something else. Your subconscious mind is always working on it even when you’re not aware of it. That’s what accounts for those ideas you get seemingly out of nowhere. You do do this. But, again, do you do it consciously and consistently as part of your creative routine? Why not?

Fresh ideas don’t come from the same place as logically deduced ideas. Thinking through a creative problem directly in real time is rarely the best way to find a truly original solution. But in this ultra busy, get-it-done-now business world, we often have little choice. I suggest you try picking up a little pollen from this challenge and go place it on that.  Do the rounds in your idea garden, and see what blossoms.

© Tom Monahan, Before & After

Tom Monahan is founder of Before & After Inc., a company specializing in training business people to think more creatively and facilitating brainstorming sessions.  B&A works with major marketers and ad agencies worldwide, including Target, Virgin Atlantic, Budweiser and Unilever, among others. Previously Tom was a founder and ECD at Leonard/Monahan, a major incubator for advertising creative talent. Tom has published The Do-it-yourself Lobotomy for John Wiley & Sons, under the Adweek imprint, he was advertising columnist for Communication Arts for over a decade and was written up in The Wall Street Journal’s long-running “creative leaders” series.



Going with your first idea is rarely a good idea.*

One of the biggest mistakes most people make in creative pursuits is to go with the first good idea they come up with, or worst yet, they go with the first idea, period. This can be a particularly damaging habit when brainstorming. There are several reasons why this is usually not a good thing, not the least of which is the cold hard business reason: losing competitive advantage.

Years ago when I was an advertising creative director and used to look at dozens of advertising portfolios a month I could tell four pages into a book if that person was shooting from the hip or really thinking through a marketing problem and finding fresh solutions.  When you do something for a living you can spot this type of lazy thinking a mile away — ideas that are tired cliches, not surprising nor differentiating concepts

Today as a creative thinking coach serving many industries I continue to see this rush to creativeness.  There have always been three subsets of the population who tend to fall into this trap.  But, more and more, I find this inclination across the board.   Continue reading

Do or die creativity.

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 10.41.37 PM


Few things spur creativeness like the will to survive.

I watched an amazing baseball game yesterday.  The Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox (yeah, I’m a Sox fan, and they won, but that’s not what made the game amazing, from a creativity aspect, that is). From almost the beginning of the game until the very end both managers did some very imaginative things, mostly managerial decisions that were not by the book, as they say, and in many cases diametrically opposed to that book, better known as conventional thinking.

The Rays manager, Joe Maddon, the most creative manager in the major leagues in my opinion, pulled his starting pitcher before he even allowed a single run to be scored.  I won’t go into the reasoning here, but when has that ever been done before, apart from injuries?  And Maddon was forced to be creative thereafter throughout the game because of that move AND because his team was in a do or die situation, meaning if they lost the game their season would be over.

The Red Sox manager, John Farrell, a pretty innovative guy himself, was equally creative throughout the game with when he took pitchers out or left them in, in many cases going against conventional wisdom of pitch counts and such, and with pinch hitting and other bold moves, not because he was in a do or die situation, but because he wanted Joe Maddon’s team to do or die.

My point is this: In business we have opportunities every day to do things differently, things that can have a profound impact on the business we run or contribute to.  But most days we do the same old same old, because we can get away with it.  Because we’re not in a do or die situation. If we had to make decisions that impacted the very survival of our business TODAY we would likely think very differently.  Well. why can’t we just think differently anyway?  Because, really, every day we are in a do or die situation, it’s just that we’re not as attuned to the subtleties of a long slow death as we are to imminent demise.




“That’s sooooo been done.”

Yesterday lyrics bold

Maybe not.

Just because an idea seems familiar doesn’t mean it’s been done before.

In a book about The Beatles top 100 songs, two of the top 10, Yesterday (#4) and Something (#6) were considered very familiar by the Fab Two who wrote them; Paul McCartney and George Harrison, respectively.  So familiar, that each song writer didn’t even bother to play the song for their fellow band mates initially, thinking the melodies must already have been done.

This happens to people in business quite often.  They come up with an idea, it seems familiar, or just obvious and they figure, it must already exist, so they move on,

Maybe these ideas are so right on, so packed with relevance that it seems impossible that someone else didn’t already have them.  In The Beatles examples, both Yesterday and Something were indeed broadly relevant, as both songs went on to become the two most covered songs from the entire Beatles repertoire, Yesterday the most covered song of all time, period.

So when you have an idea that feels like it might already exist, but you’re not sure, don’t be so quick to dismiss it.  Explore the appropriate landscape to see if it actually might be an “obvious” idea that everyone else just overlooked. Recognize that the very fact that the idea seems familiar might be the reason it could be so successful.  But don’t keep it to yourself.  The risk of having someone else in your inner circle confirm that it’s been done is far outweighed by the potential upside if it is original.  It’s only an idea initially.  Put it out there in conceptual form.  It could become a huge hit in the marketplace.

Note: For people who find the creative development process interesting, the above book “The Beatles 100 greatest songs,” published by Rolling Stone has a wealth of inspiration – real world inspiration, not theory. If you’re a popular music fan you might just be blown away to understand some of the method behind these creative geniuses madness.

© 2013 Tom Monahan

Tom Monahan is Head Creative Thinking Coach at Before & After Inc., a company specializing in training business people to think more creatively and facilitating brainstorming sessions.  B&A works with major marketers and ad agencies worldwide, including Target, Virgin Atlantic, Budweiser and Unilever, among others. Previously Tom was a founder and ECD at Leonard/Monahan, a major incubator for advertising creative talent. Tom has published The Do-it-yourself Lobotomy for John Wiley & Sons, under the Adweek imprint, he was advertising columnist for Communication Arts for over a decade and was written up in The Wall Street Journal’s long-running “creative leaders” series.


A huge negative becomes a huge positive. How big? As big as the moon.

Corona beer has a skunky odor, according to a beer industry insider, because of the distinctive clear bottle.  That’s why most beers are in brown or green bottles.  The smell happens when the beer becomes “light struck”, again according to that same brewing expert.  Supposedly the smell doesn’t hurt the taste.  But it did cause marketers of the beer to suggest the lime slice in the bottle mouth to basically disguise the stench.  Interesting.

Would these clever markers have been as clever if the stink wasn’t a problem?  I doubt it.

But, wow, has the brand and their agency Cramer-Krasselt made that lime slice an enduring branding icon for many moons!  And the hits just keep getting better, as this video demonstrates.