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.



What the umbrella “assassin” can teach us about triggering wildly creative ideas.

The New York Times recently produced a wonderful little video, The Umbrella Man, featuring Joshua “Tink” Thompson, author of “Six Seconds in Dallas,” an analysis of the infamous Zapruder film depicting the JFK assassination.  Thompson devoted a good deal of his various careers to studying the complexities of reality, this is certainly a bending of reality as it relates to creativity.

This short film explains how the cockamamy theory of Kennedy’s umbrella assassin emerged, and shows us how introducing totally random data into a factual senario can lead to otherwise unfathomable conclusions – a pretty cool way to look at creative thinking.

When we’re seeking fresh ideas we’re all slaves to what we know.  It’s not wrong.  It’s just how the mind works.  We can only process what is in our minds; what we recall and what we observe in the present.  So the raw material for all of our new ideas is bits and pieces of what we know, all put into our mental Cuisinart.

But introduce a totally incongruous piece of data, and, BAM! the mind, still using rational process, tries to make it all make sense leading to some pretty creative concepts, as this film illustrates.

On many creative days we get these random cues and weave them into our thoughts consciously or not.  (More often we miss them, or even dismiss them.)  Stephen Tyler hears a Marty Feldmen line in the film Young Frankenstein, “Walk this way” and it leads to a great song hook.   Philip Pullman gets the core idea for His Dark Materials Trilogy when he sees a DaVinci painting of a young girl holding an ermine.

When I lead brainstorming sessions we use a simple tool called Intergalactic Thinking™ to trigger fresh ideas.  It’s easy and it’s fast.  The only thing that causes some people pause is that it forces them to deviate from the linear thinking that dominates their thought process virtually all of the time.  But this divergent thought process works.  The next time I lead a brainstorming session I’m going to use the umbrella galaxy and see what happens.

The Umbrella Man film was brought to my attention by fellow creative thinking enthusiast and all around creative guy Marty Baker of Inotivity.

When bad ideas are close to brilliant.

All brainstorming sessions yield “bad” ideas.  And when you go for lots and lots of ideas, as a productive brainstorming session should, you will have lots and lots of “bad” ideas (or “fertilizer” as I like to think of it).  

But bad ideas and good ideas, seemingly at extreme points on a continuum, are often more like points on the equator.  If you keep following one far enough, you might get to the other point.  I mean how many truly great ideas have been met with, “That’s crazy.” Or, “That won’t work.”

So, when brainstorming, the secret is to find these potentially good bad ideas among the riff raff, and push them along the continuum to see if they might actually be good. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge.

I  hear a lot of people who lead brainstorming sessions say, “there’s no such things as a bad idea.”  They’re kidding, right?  Actually, if a brainstorm session I’m leading doesn’t have a lot of bad ideas, I get worried that people aren’t pushing hard enough for fresh ideas.

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