Turn On Your Idea Machine

By Stephen Dupont, vice president, Pocket Hercules

Have you ever been absolutely desperate for a great idea? Or faced the pressure from your boss to “think outside of the box!” Or, “Out-think the competition.”

If you answered ‘yes’, then you likely know that chaotic feeling of a brainstorm session. That feeling of having dozens and dozens of seemingly good ideas, but you’re not quite sure which would best solve the problem or meet the goals of the project at hand.

If you’re searching for an idea or you’re trying to cull through a bunch of ideas, the key is to develop smarter, more relevant ideas, and make them irresistible to a buyer, whether that’s a potential customer or your boss’ boss.

So, how can you or your organization turn on your idea machine to consistently deliver more awesome ideas?

Create a Safe Environment

Places like Google, Apple and Tesla are often labeled as idea factories, but the reality is that for most of working America, only 1 in 5 working adults believes that management supports their entrepreneurial ideas, according to a recent Accenture study. While workplaces might encourage workers to offer ideas that would improve operations or generate more revenue, the opposite typically happens. Because workers feel that management won’t champion their ideas, or actually feel criticized for suggesting a new way of doing something they shut down.

The key to unlocking more ideas within your organization is to change your mindset, and that of your organization. Start thinking like an entrepreneur. Start thinking daring thoughts like, “How could we disrupt our industry?”

And, if you’re a business owner or a manager, create a safe environment that allows people to share their talents and solve problems for your business or your customers. That means communicate openly and invite your employees to share their ideas.

Consider, for example, Google’s policy that encourages employees to dedicate 20 percent of their work time on their own pet projects. According to a recent article published by Entrepreneurial Insights, in establishing this policy, Google employee productivity has not only increased, but this dedicated innovation time has led to a number of new products such as Gmail and Google Suggest.

Where to Start

While some would say that there should be no boundaries on idea generation, there should be a place that provides focus to the idea generation process. Start by asking yourself this one question: How can we deliver more value to our customers?

For an effective idea to move from thought to action it must solve a problem, meet a specific need, or move the narrative of your customer’s story along to the next step. When you place a priority on championing your customer’s success and happiness, you win, too.

If it helps to get the juices flowing, put yourself in your customer’s feet, and think about what is it that bugs you the most about your company’s product or service.

If that doesn’t work for you, then take the opposite tack. Think like the entrepreneur who wants to enter your market and put your company out of business — someone who wants to completely change all of the rules of the game. And with that mindset, think about how you can better add value to the customer than an established brand.

Improving the customer experience doesn’t necessarily mean actually improving the physical product by adding a new feature. That entrepreneur might be running these questions through his or her mind: Could the package be changed (wine in a box)? Could product delivery be altered (how about letting people download movies through their laptop or mobile device)? Could the online experience be made simpler or more user-friendly? Is there a market segment that’s being ignored or overlooked (serious road bikers like to shave their legs — maybe they’d like our new razor)?

Look at the craft beer market! There’s beer for bicyclers, for those with gluten allergies, and beer for enthusiasts who want authentic ale like the way Belgian monks used to make it in the 1600s. Beer is now packaged in fancy wine-like bottles, and those fancy hoppy beers are now available in cans so that you can toss them in a backpack or a take them on a camping trip.

The changes rocking the beer market didn’t stop at creating a better product or offering it in new packaging (e.g., growlers). In Minnesota, craft brewers lobbied for a law that allows them to sell beer on site, directly from their breweries, including on Sundays. Certainly profit was a motive, but in Minnesota, where it’s illegal to purchase beer from liquor stores on Sundays, they did it first and foremost to meet the needs of their hardcore craft beer fans.

Other areas of disruption to watch include: the commercial use of drones, Bitcoin and other digital payment systems, sharing services (Uber, Airbnb), and new pricing models (airlines).

When you focus your idea generation on producing a higher quality customer experience — an experience so good that your customers will want to share it with others – your ideas will automatically become smarter, more relevant, and easier to sell through your organization or to a client.

 Fuel Up the Idea Machine

After you’ve focused on developing ideas that solve a customer’s problem, it’s time to push the “on” button. Here are a few tips for generating more, smarter ideas:

  • Connect the Dots. Maria Popova, founder and editor of the blog, org, believes that creativity comes from a force where existing pieces of knowledge, ideas, memories and inspiration are combined to create something new. The challenge is looking beyond the obvious to discover all of the little pieces and details that go into your customer’s experience. And then, connect the dots. What else is part of the customer’s experience – art, music, technology, the environment, politics, culture, or history? A rich, deep pool of insight offers greater the opportunity to create more meaningful ideas that matter and will succeed.
  • Look at the data under your nose. Don’t fall into the group of idea-starved organizations and individuals that have been operating from long-held, static perceptions of their customers. Take a closer look at the data collected by your organization (or by your client) and you might find a treasure trove of useful information that could fuel new ideas.
  • KYC (Know Your Customer) – Don’t assume, ask. Don’t assume you know what your customers want. Ask them. Find out what the greatest challenge your customer is facing now. Find out their “pain points.” Then, invite them to talk about this challenge so that you can begin generating relevant ideas that solve problems and move them to “pleasure points.” If you have a perceived base of loyal customers, avoid assumptions based on how you always do things. Really get to know them. Meet them face-to-face. Pick up the phone and call them. Send your customers an article you saw about an industry trend and then follow up to see what they think. Asking regularly is a good thing.
  • Observe your customers. Have you actually witnessed your customers using your product? If not, get out from behind your desk and go to the retail floor and work directly with a customer to solve their problem. Or, go spend an afternoon listening (or even responding) to calls and live online chats coming in through your Voice of the Customer operations. Or shadow them throughout their day. For example, for a major trucking company, I spent a couple days hanging out at truck stops to see how drivers interact with different media (magazines, TV screens, bulletin boards, etc.). It was an eye opener. Seeing firsthand how your customers experience your product will better help you understand the physical and emotional environment in which they’re experiencing it. That kind of insight is invaluable in generating new ideas.
  • Listen to a teen. Regardless of your age, you identify with a generation, which, from year to year, gets older. If you’re a Millennial now, one day you’ll find yourself in the same shoes as today’s Boomers. You’ll be perceived as out-of-touch with a younger generation. That’s why you need to tap the energy and new ideas of the next generation. For me, I have two digitally savvy Generation Z teens in my house that help me stay abreast of everything cool and new. They don’t know that I’m watching and listening closely, but they and their friends represent a focus group of new ideas that help energize and color ideas that I create for my clients.
  • Let your ideas have sex. In his book, The Rational Optimist, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley, explains that just as humans mate to create the next generation of the species, human progress depends on the sharing of ideas that builds on the knowledge we’ve accumulated and curated. In other words, “original” ideas actually are dependent upon the “collective brain” of accumulated thought. To put this thought into practice in your own life, or at your organization, start by setting up a wall or whiteboard in your workplace where you can post ideas as they strike you. Begin writing words, photos, drawings, and diagrams that express an idea. Invite others to share their ideas by building upon what’s up on the wall. Watch as the ideas multiply like bunnies.
  • Start a new habit. Author and entrepreneur, James Altucher, recommends writing new ideas down every day. Dedicate some time every day to write down at least 10 new ideas about your life, career or work projects. By the end of the week, you’ll have 70 ideas. By the end of the month, you’ll have up to 310 ideas. By the end of the year, you’ll have 5,200 ideas. Now imagine if everyone in your department or firm did that every day? Surely the process would generate at lease one profitable idea, if not more, while at the same time creating the discipline of daily idea generation.
  • Are your ideas the average of your five closest co-workers? If you’re struggling to generate ideas or your ideas seem to be falling flat, mix it up and find other people to hang with. Find people whose energy brings out the energy in you. Here’s the test that you may need to make a change: Do you freely exchange ideas with the people at work, or do you feel like a blind squirrel has a better chance of finding a nut before the people you work with come up with an idea? If you don’t want to leave your workplace, find others outside of work you can collaborate with and freely exchange ideas. Or, consider joining a Meetup group that shares your interests.
  • Invite your customers into the kitchen. Sometimes you need to invite your customers into your idea kitchen and to help you create. That means encouraging them share their photos, videos and other ideas through social media, email, and workshops. Or actually inviting them to your organization’s place of work to share their personal experiences with your product or service. Your true fans are the disciples of the customer experience. Tapping that insight can go a long way toward attracting new customers to your brand.
  • Capture it. Wherever you go, always bring a piece of paper and a pen. If you meet someone for coffee, be prepared to capture an idea that emerges during the conversation. If your brain turns on while you’re in the shower, or bolts you from a sound sleep, have a pad and pen ready to write your thoughts down. Any time your “boss” asks you to stop by his or her office, be ready to take notes. If you see something that looks cool, snap a photo or video with your smart phone. Then, store your ideas in a dedicated folder on your laptop or mobile device to refer to as a source of inspiration.
  • Dedicate time on your calendar for creative time. It’s easy to lose track of ourselves within our day-to-day work. If you feel like you just don’t have any time to just focus on generating ideas, then dedicate some time each week or month to idea generation. This means turning off everything and finding the peace and quiet you need, without distractions, to just think.
  • Think like a contrarian. Imagine if drones delivered your product? What if you created software that allowed anyone to rent out his or her car when it wasn’t being used? What if every single phone call received by your company was answered by a live human being vs. an automated voice system? Think crazy. Go to the extremes. Do the opposite. There just might be an idea there that will disrupt the entire industry.
  • Dig up old mousetraps. Lying around every organization, in file drawers and on company servers, are old proposals, strategic plans and project outlines. Many contain brilliant ideas that just weren’t right for their time, or didn’t have a champion to stand up for them. Don’t throw them out or delete them! Dig them out and see if you can improve upon them.
  • Surround yourself with things that inspire you. We are all inspired by something. For me, sometimes I need to stimulate the creative juices with music (Beck, Philip Glass, The Band, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Miles Davis are some of my favorites), books (Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Tom Peters), places of inspiration (MOMA, the mountains, walking the streets of Manhattan), or engage in physical activity (kettlebells, cycling, downhill skiing). Get out of your cubicle. Ditch the screen. Grab a notepad, pen and find that something to get the ideas flowing.

There are many tactics and tools that one can use to generate smarter, more relevant ideas. But the greatest tool is that which lies within you – your natural curiosity. Ultimately, the end game of ideation is to spark change. But the spirit of ideation lies in the joy of just wondering. Time is short. Go find the people, the organizations, and the projects that bring out the best in you. The more you invest in yourself and stimulating your curiosity, the more those “happy accidents” (which become the big ideas you often read about) will happen more frequently.

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont or visit stephendupont.co.





Written by Stephen Dupont

Stephen Dupont, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice president of public relations and branded content at Pocket Hercules, a Minneapolis branding and creative firm. He blogs at www.stephendupont.co.