“We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” ― Chuck Palahniuk
Every creation begins with an idea.
The products that come from good ideas improve lives, save us time, and help us do the most basic and complex of tasks. And all those creations began with a spark of inspiration.
But we often don’t prioritize ideas. They come to us in the shower or on our commute to work, and then we forget them. Or, sometimes we forget to have them. We focus on the task at hand, and don’t make time for the simple act of thinking, innovating, or daydreaming up our next great idea.
Why? Because most of us have never been taught how to develop and collect innovative ideas.
When I left my job at Amazon in 2006, I had the dream of starting my own company. I knew I wanted to do a startup, but there was one thing that was holding me up: I didn’t have any good ideas.
Fast-forward to now and I have so many ideas that the challenge isn’t coming up with a viable business, but instead buckling down and focusing. What changed? I learned how to think innovatively. I spent time with entrepreneurial people who taught me new ways of looking at the world and I created systems to cultivate and grow the seeds of great ideas.
Thinking creatively isn’t something most of us are trained to do well.
In school, we are taught how to complete tasks. We do assignments and homework and take tests that are all given to us. And for many of us, in our early careers we are told not to rock the boat and just focus on our assigned tasks and projects. Being creative and thinking out of the box is not something we’re encouraged to do most of the time.
However, leaders are innovators. If you want to grow in your career (especially if you are in a management or executive role, or want to have one someday) you will be expected not just to do the work in front of you, but to come up with new ideas that drive your business forward. It’s your job to make things better, and to have great ideas that help the people around you be more successful.
Want to be someone bubbling with ideas and innovations?
Well, it takes practice, but you can totally do it, even if you haven’t made it part of your routine before.
Here are some of my strategies to get you started on developing and collecting your ideas.
Plan time for ideation and thinking
Schedule in a set amount of time (anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes) a week for you to focus all of your attention on developing ideas. This is the time that you block out all of your other thoughts, to-do’s, meetings, and everything.
If you don’t make time just for thinking, you’re not likely to get it. There are just too many outside demands on our time that can take over; the best innovators are those who schedule time for thinking and keep that appointment regularly.
It has been shown that great ideas can come from changing your scenery, so take your thinking on a walk. Get out of your normal surroundings. Just be sure to come up with a way to capture any great ideas that come your way (I try to set aside 5 minutes at the end of my strolls to jot down any insights I had along the way).
I would also strongly recommend doing a Monday Ninja Planning Session, which is time set aside for you to just think about and schedule the most important work to get done that week. When you block off time to plan your week, block off a little extra time to ideate too. You can even combine these two related sessions into one amazing 30-60 minute session!
Think together; think alone
The best brainstorming sessions aren’t just about bringing a group together to think through an idea; the best ones involve a combination of thinking individually and thinking as a team. Not everyone does their best thinking out loud; many people on your team likely work better when they know what problem they’ll be expected to solve and they can prepare beforehand. By incorporating many voices and providing different environments for people to ideate in, you can draw out the best ideas from everyone.
Here are two ways to do carry this out in a one hour meeting time:
- Have everyone on your team spend fifteen minutes thinking about the answer to a problem you need to solve before you the meeting. Then come together and spend thirty minutes talking over those answers as a team. People can troubleshoot others’ ideas and expand on their own. Then send everyone back to their desks for another fifteen minutes to think separately again so people can process what they’ve learned and create finalized solutions.
- Gather everyone for fifteen minutes and come up with an expansive list of possible solutions to a problem (even silly or unrealistic ones) – just to get people’s creative juices flowing. Then send everyone off for thirty minutes to improve and expand those ideas. Re-group for fifteen minutes and have everyone share their best, final idea to help.
Have conversations that inspire you
In addition to brainstorming as a group, it can also be super helpful to bounce ideas off of other people; especially one that have very different viewpoints or perspectives from yours.
People don’t join book clubs just to read books. Anyone can pick up a book to read. It is the diverse exchange of ideas that results from everyone reading the exact same text that makes book clubs fun! Your conversations should do the same: allow you to hear new perspectives, ideas, and stimulate your own thinking.
Schedule a chat with a friend who you’ve always admired for his or her critical thinking skills. You don’t have to have an intended topic or issue in mind, just see where the conversation goes and what it produces.
However, one of my favorite things to do is bounce an idea off of a smart friend that I’ve had on my mind for a while when we are catching up over coffee or lunch. I almost always get a great idea from them that I hadn’t thought of, or at least a new perspective that helps me frame the problem in a new way.
Create an idea collector
Find a format that you can stick with for writing down ideas as they occur to you.
When I was a student, at the beginning of every semester I would buy a planner. I’d use it for the first week and then it’d end up somewhere in a desk drawer as I got busy, slightly less organized and resorted to notebooks to record homework assignments and important reminders. Eventually I realized I had to unify my note-taking system. This was only after years of collecting ideas in apps, napkins, notebooks, and too many random places.
Now I use Evernote for things like blog post ideas, online research, and digital notes. I like it because it is searchable and easy to keep organized using a simple notebook structure.
I also use a fancy notebook for my “thought summaries.” I have a hard time remembering things unless I write them down, so I like to jot down key lessons or important takeaways from books I read, podcasts I listen to, or conversations I have. I find a physical notebook best for this purpose since it is more of a memory aid than a reference I come back to regularly.
The format you pick – whether it is Evernote, a physical notebook, or writing it on your arm (although we suggest something a little more permanent) – is less important than selecting something that you consistently utilize. Play around until you find your format!
Stop looking for ideas
Sometimes when we stop trying to think, we’ll be in the shower or getting into the car and something brilliant strikes us. Be open to great ideas happening in these moments and be prepared to record them (this is where having a note-taking system that work for you comes in handy!).
While it is important to set aside time for thinking creatively and innovating, you have to accept sometimes that taking a break is just what your brain needs. When you free yourself from the burden of thinking and let your mind wander elsewhere while you’re running an errand or taking a walk, that is often the free space your brain needed to make a super smart connection. Sometimes we have to take a break from actively trying to create great ideas in order for them to happen.
I have also found meditation incredibly helpful for me. Even though that time is supposed to be spent clearing your mind of ideas, I find that great ideas come to me anyway.
And don’t be afraid to have a bunch of ideas on the backburner. By noodling on a few ideas at a time, your mind can background process them, draw connections between them, and subconsciously search for solutions.
For example, I always have about 4 blog posts in process. Why? I find that as I think about them over a period of weeks I find little sparks of inspiration in conversations, articles I read online, or even in my sleep. Your mind is incredibly powerful that way, and you would be amazed at what you can accomplish or discover without looking.
How can you make things better?
Improve the ideas of others
Pharmaceutical companies improve the drugs of other companies. Software developers hack their favorite apps into something more useful. People come up with new, better, products all the time – not everything has to be a completely brand new idea. In fact, few great ideas are ever 100% original.
So next time you look at something and think, “This would be so much better if….” Write it down. Write down what needs improvement. Write down your “if…” statement. Then, during your next ideation session, think of concrete ways to improve that product or idea.
Don’t be afraid to take a new idea that is really just an improvement of what already exists. After all, Google wasn’t the first search engine (or even in the first 5!).
Think about how to improve your own life
At some point, someone rushing to work thought, “It’d be really nice if I could go stop and get breakfast on my way to work,” and thus, egg mcmuffins and drive through breakfast was conceived. Run with those silly, unique thoughts you have about the things in your day-to-day life! If your ideas will improve your life, chances are the same thing will improve the lives of others.
Plus, incorporating a problem-solving mindset in your regular life will help you be more effective when you need to come up with great ideas at work. The more practice you have creating solutions, the better you’ll be at it.
Where people see problems or inefficiencies learn to see solutions. Anytime something is less pleasant, less optimal, or less efficient there is an opportunity for innovation. If you aren’t good at solutions, try capturing problems. When you notice something you think could be improved take note of it.
Learn about the world
Another great way to have more ideas is to just know more about the world. I wrote about some strategies along this line of thinking in this blog post on learning to think innovatively. Great ideas often come from making connections. Like Dyson inventing his vacuum technology from observing the way cyclones were used in saw mills.
Learning about the way things work and being able to draw parallels can help you come up with all sorts of connections and solutions. If you aren’t sure how to spend your idea time use that extra 30-60 minutes per week to learn about something new.
Do you know how the radio works? How about glue? Air conditioning? Polaroids? Or stone paper (one of my latest obsessions)? Dive into the details; learn about the way things work. Read biographies and histories. And take notes about what you learn (unless you are one of those amazing people who can retain all that information).
The more you know the more connections you can make, and the more great ideas will come to you.
Whatever you do, whatever works for you, just stick with it and write it all down! Amazing products and creations begin with ideas that someone jotted down somewhere and came back to with energy and problem-solving skills. The next great idea could come from you.
How do you do your best innovating and ideating? Share your tips in the comments; I always love new strategies for being innovative and thoughtful. :)