How to fill a blank sheet of paper with ideas

Or: why I’m putting up boundaries

We all crave freedom, or so we think. But when we’re given a blank canvas, how free do we allow ourselves to be?

Michel Foucault argued we cannot be truly free. We are influenced from the moment of our conception: our genetic make-up, our parents socio-economic status, their beliefs, our schooling. While we are told we are free to choose our own path, that path can be shaped by influences we might not even be aware of.

Then there are the stories we tell ourselves. The view of who we are we hold in our heads. Often there are at least two versions because we are all subject to negative thoughts at some time or other and we vary in our abilities to tell that ‘voice’ to be quiet and leave us alone.

There’s a part of our brain which is primitive, tuned to fight or flight. It’s no longer likely those of us living in comfort in Western cities will be eaten by tigers and so that basic protection system finds itself fighting false battles. Things which definitely won’t kill me can prompt irrational fear. I like my comfort zone. It’s a safe space where I know what’s what and that I’m not going to have to do anything which is going to set my adrenaline racing uncontrollably. I’ve subconsciously built myself walls.

Enter a blank sheet of paper and a challenge. Write 99 business ideas. In 24 hours. We’re a team of four, one in the UK, another in Lichtenstein, the third person is in Germany and the fourth Poland. The clock is ticking. Our minds are blank.

Six hours to go and we’re on a video conference call. We start creating boundaries. Framing the question. The blank sheet of paper starts to develop a title. Bootstrap businesses based around the food industry. One of the team has a pack of cards with 55 business models developed by St Gallen University. Pick a card, any card. We create new boundaries which change in a lottery draw every 5 or 10 minutes.

Asking ‘will it work?’ was not productive. Instead the question we all kept throwing out there was: ‘what if?’ Can you apply the razor and blade model to food? Yes. Can you create a food business based on a flat-rate system? Yes. What about crowdsourcing?

As each business model card is drawn (we used nowhere near the full 55) we started saying ideas. A project which had started with simply writing down ‘breakfast’, ‘lunch’, ‘dinner’, is now producing ideas we’re getting excited about. We’re under pressure. We’re stressed. But we’re smiling and joking and bouncing ideas off each other. We come up with half a dozen which really could work.

We reach the magic 99 and stop. Later we ask ourselves why. Why didn’t we keep going? We had enough time. There was a boundary which had been pre-specified and none of us thought to challenge it. 
Filling a blank sheet of paper had proved difficult. Coming up with 99 ideas for businesses within 6 hours we achieved joyfully.

Draw lines on that blank sheet of paper, set the bar high, and keep asking ‘what if?’ The only barrier to success is whether you are willing to believe you can do it. You can.