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In Part One last week we spoke of good idea skills being your main defence against being replaced by software, even if you’re in a prestige career.
This week, how to actually have those ideas.
Business people tend to think creative ideas are the domain of the marketing department, and that’s wrong.
It might be ideas for new products, new types of customer, new ways to deliver your service, how to attract better staff, how to funnel your clients’ illicit billions through a complex web of offshore accounts.
Don’t do that last one.
As I mentioned last week, none of this is universal gospel. They’re tips that helped me have a nice career as a paid idea-haver, hopefully some of them work for you.
1. Stop looking to your own industry
People are obsessed by their own industry. Everyone looks at how their competitors price, sell, deliver, everything. If anyone changes, and they’re seen to be doing well, everyone copies it.
Once a year (normally) they all go to a trade show where everyone thinks and talks exactly the same. It’s a comforting herd experience.
And so every business in that sector reverts to the mean.
To outsiders – i.e customers – all those businesses look the same.
So how do buyers choose among all those identical suppliers? Oh yes, the cheapest of five quotes.
Is that what you want that for the rest of your working life?
2. Exit the goldfish bowl
Look at other industries and what’s working there.
At the very least, read the general business media and see what’s happening outside your goldfish bowl.
A thing that really helps is a diverse circle of friends.
Apart from the fact that friends are great, I value my friendships with robot engineers, lawyers, road builders, fashion people, brewers, tradies and academics, because they’re all interesting.
The way they approach work is different to our industry.
What’s a pedestrian, everyday thing to them is a genius breakthrough somewhere else.
Transplanting ideas from one industry to another can work great.
Like when 3M developed a breakthrough concept for preventing infections after surgery by asking a theatrical-makeup specialist for tips.
Sometimes it’s … not so great, like this gem I found in the bottle shop on the weekend.
Perhaps it is I who is out of touch, and people really do want to slug down a bottle of refrigerated bong water on their next picnic.
The market shall decide.
3. Brainstorming: no thank you
When it’s time to think, I get much better results getting away from people.
I’m not a fan of formal brainstorming. I’ve read plenty of books on creative thinking, from Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats onward. Lots of them recommend exercises with Lego or whatever to ‘loosen up’.
For me, there’s something about being told “we’re all in this meeting room to create GAME-CHANGER IDEAS” that sucks all the joy out of it.
It reminds me of university group assignments where the good people have the ideas and do all the work.
Others get in the way, insist on priority for their terrible ideas, make good ideas worse with stupid amendments, and claim credit for results they had no part of achieving.
If you’re managing people whose job is having ideas: be aware that the most demotivating thing for ideas people is having to share the credit with Dunning-Kruger types.
My preference is to treat your everyday conversational life as an informal brainstorming session.
Asking people about random stuff, bouncing ideas off them, getting their feedback.
It’s much less artificial when people aren’t trying too hard or feeling they’re being watched.
I’m particularly excited that a very good location for this process re-opens in my town next Monday. Hello, pubs!
4. Routine keeps you idea-fit
Nick Cave, despite the demon-junkie persona of his early years, gets up every weekday, puts on a bespoke suit and goes to the office where he writes his tunes. Result: decades of quality material.
Ideas are like exercise. You cannot be wondering if you’re going to do it today.
To do this thing properly, you have to accept that you’re going to do it regardless of whatever happens. I’ve put out the blog every Tuesday for nearly four years now, with about three weeks off per year.
There have been plenty of occasions when I would have been well-justified in not doing it. Business dramas that threatened our very survival. Sad personal stuff. Health things.
You would have been fine with me missing a week for any of those very good reasons.
But the discipline of doing this is at the core of my identity and personal pride, and I’m fucked if I’m going to allow any weakness on this issue. It’s easier to write the blog because I’m not wasting time or energy wondering if I’m feeling it this Monday.
I know it’s happening. So my brain just goes: get to work, monkey boy.
If you allocate one uninterrupted hour a week to just having ideas, you’ll be miles ahead of others after a year. Put in your diary and protect it with the zero-tolerance aggression of a mother magpie.
Taken with a rear facing camera on a bike helmet
Photo credit :Monique Newton pic.twitter.com/uB5jAhqGtZ
— DJ (@_CharleeGirl_) September 12, 2021
If you miss one (thinking session not magpie) in the first few months, it’s not going to happen. Because you didn’t try hard enough. Sorry but that’s the reality.
5. Embrace your bad ideas
There are no good ideas without a ton of bad ideas first.
No matter how good you are.
Be happy that you’ve spent an hour and all your ideas suck. You’re an hour closer to getting there.
I feel like I’m using too many muso role models here, but alt-country legend and prolific writer Jason Isbell put it best on the topic of writer’s block.
I do not believe in it. My job is to write, not to like what I’m writing. That’s why we edit, and nobody gets editor’s block. https://t.co/CSAGcyvSII
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) June 6, 2021
6. Restrictions help
A guaranteed way to create idea paralysis is infinite options.
The best way to calm your brain down is to cut your creative map down to a manageable territory.
Most of us have our most ingenious ideas when we’re caught in some nasty trap, possibly of our own making.
Unless you can come up with a plan that navigates you out of complex restrictions, using only string-and-paper-clip resources, your business might die.
The honey badger part of your brain takes over, and works out a genius escape plan.
(Do not skip the badger video or you life will be a lot poorer)
Restrictions on your idea brief make it so much easier.
They might be real, like a small budget. If not, throw in some artificial ones and see how it goes.
What if you had to get the product out by next week?
What if you charged 50% over your current price? How could you justify and sell that?
What if your biggest customer dropped you?
What if you could only sell to people under 30?
What if you could only promote using customer word of mouth?
And so on.
Think of how the whole COVID experience created a world of new ideas and products with the question: what if nobody could go to an office?
7. Down time can finish the job
Even when you do the work, you might not have a decent idea. That’s cool.
The work has stirred up a swirling mass of half-formed material in your brain, and sometimes it takes time to settle.
When I had my ad agency, I’d sweat over a brief all day and come up with nothing but B-minus ideas.
So many times the good idea would drop on the next morning’s commute, while staring at the back of a bus in heavy traffic.
Sleep helps. Mental downtime works. Driving on a familiar road is as close as some of us come to a trance-like state, and that’s why commuting was really valuable for me. Do the work first, then de-frag that brain.
I’m up to around 200 blog stories on here, and it gets pretty hard to find a new topic each week that I feel strongly about.
I had a sweet week off recently, and after that I was buzzing with topics.
Planned breaks are as much a part of discipline as the work.
8. Find your medium
I’m not superstitious about having thinking socks or whatever. But I find ideas come from an A5 notebook and a specific type of basic black gel pen.
I like paper for its lack of pop-up distractions, and because it’s a clean break from the laptop that is attached to me for the rest of my work and creative life.
I can’t deal with a different paper size, and I associate that gel pen with frictionless idea flow. A different colour annoys me and kills the vibe.
Find a medium and tools that you associate with having ideas and stick to that habit.
9. Congratulations you had a good idea!
If you have a great idea, you’ll want to go and tell other people immediately. And ask for their opinion.
Do that later.
Keep going. There are more, even better ideas just around the corner.
If you’re on a roll, keep at it and see what else is in that powerful brain.
There’ll be time enough to reward yourself with a refreshing hemp wine later on.
You know what’s a good idea? Buying my book, Undisruptable: Timeless Business Truths For A World Of Nonstop Change. It’s out on Penguin Random House, and it’s the #1-reviewed business book on Booktopia. Here’s a random one from Pedro in the UK.
Also if you’re new round here, I put out a story like this every Tuesday, drop your email here to get it in your inbox each week.
Non-Spotify audio 12 mins