Want better ideas? Go to Crazytown

The internet is tipping over with listicles about creativity, but they don’t really help that much in the busy, noisy, constrain-y environs of business and start-ups. Sometimes you just have to be brave, get a bit stupid, and go to Crazytown.

Oh joy! Brainstorming time…

There’s nothing like the word ‘brainstorming’ to bring on such feels of hope and promise in some people, and fear and loathing in others. It’s the word that makes introverts want to run and hide, and extroverts want to — well — go all extroverted on everyone. We want, nay crave, to reach that promised land of great ideas, but are often so confused about the path to get there.

I run a lot of workshops. Some are fairly serious affairs, like product strategy workshops. Others delve into customer empathy and insight using techniques like journey mapping and storytelling. Still others are just good clean fun, with activities like storyboarding, prototyping and role play.

They all typically involve some degree of ideation: brainstorming, going broad, blue-sky out-of-the-box thinking, that sort of thing. I’ve never met anyone who is happy with one or two lame ideas; everyone wants as many ideas as possible, and of course we’re all after that absolute disruptive cracker.

But time and time again I notice that people either seem satisfied with just having those one or two lame ideas, or they’re disappointed at the low yield, but aren’t willing to call it out. They’re not sure how to build their creativity muscle. Or they push a mediocre idea through, polishing the absolute snot out of it, hoping it’ll be okay.

Why is this?

No creativity with anxiety

Firstly, people often don’t actually want amazing ideas. They want feasible ideas. There’s a well-known triad of outcomes I’m fond of where you can think of any product, service or experience as being desirable (people will love it and recommend it), viable (you will make or save money from it) and feasible (you can build and service it). Most of the time we trap ourselves in the Feasibility Corner, fill our minds with Viability Language, and it weighs us down so that the desirable is beyond reach.

Getting a room of people to try to come up with ideas, or reach a break-through solution, with this sort of thinking is incredibly anxiety-inducing. And it’s hard to find a better way to squash creativity than anxiety.

It’s about stepping stones, not bridges

Secondly, I think people have a really narrow concept of what an idea even is, especially in the corporate “let’s make things for people to buy and use” context. There’s an unspoken expectation that a great idea will just birth itself out of someone’s mouth or whiteboard marker, fully-formed, resplendent in all its commercial world-changing power. I know, I’ve been guilty of this.

But it doesn’t happen that way. It just doesn’t. I could fill this post with loads of quotes about creativity and inspiration and hard work and so on, but I won’t. I’m sure you know a few of those already. Ideas happen as a fluid collection of connections, sparks, meanderings and questions. Ideas aren’t big bridges to cross a river, they’re a series of big and small stones to hop across.

So, the thing here is to change your approach to coming up with ideas in the first place. But how? Glad you asked. Here’s a couple of things that work for me.

Call out your constraints

The first thing I’d like you to do is to finish this sentence:

We need amazing ideas for our [insert product/service/campaign/experience] BUT…

Start by calling out what is silently hobbling your thinking. Is it a time limit? Is it something to do with resources and capabilities? A cranky stakeholder? What?

Do it as a team, even, and bring out all those silent anxieties, pre-conditions and constraints into the open.

Now take a good long hard look at those constraints, and think about whether they are indeed constraints, the scale of those constraints, and how you can come up with ideas to solve those things first. See it as a game where you get to knock down each of these pegs first, and probably come up with ideas for the main thing on the way. There now, didn’t that feel better already?

Can we go to Crazytown now?

Another thing I often do in creative workshops is to draw something that looks like this:

On the left is you and where you are now. A bit further along is where most of your ideas tend to be. Safe. Normal. Expected. Further along still is where things get bold and people start scratching their heads, wondering if it’s even possible. And then on the far right is Crazytown.

I love Crazytown! Crazytown is Willy Wonka territory, it’s where Unikitty lives, it’s where fish ride bicycles, where ice cream is wasabi flavour, where tattoos are animated, where a computer can fit on your wrist, where random connections are made, where dreams live.

Can you see it in your head? It’s a truly wonderful place.

But you don’t live there. You just visit.

You buy a return ticket, you get on that train, and you get off at Crazytown. You take in deep lungfuls of the air that smells vaguely of bubble-gum and western red cedar, you play their weird dancing-around-with-buckets-on-your-head dance, you joke with the locals, take photos.

And you see amazingly stupid ways of working with whatever problem or need that you actually want ideas for. Quick! Write those down, draw them, whatever. But capture those amazingly stupid things.

And then you get back on the train, and you come back invigorated, refreshed, and with a head and sketch-pad full of those amazingly stupid things.

Now, no-one would ever expect you or your team to present those ideas, let alone actually make and release them. But here’s the magic: you mine those ideas for what you could use. Break each one down, apply your business rules, user research insights, understanding and all the other serious grown-up things to those ideas.

Because what you’ve brought back from Crazytown is a whole host of new idea territories. You’ve stepped out of your regular environment, your regular thinking.

But how, Ben?

If you want to try this in a group, draw this diagram, and tell them this story. Make sure they know that whether they’re there to solve a problem, or there to come up with some cool innovative campaign, Crazytown still helps. You can solve boring problems with crazy ideas.

Show the way to Crazytown

Mark on the line where people tend to want ideas to be, and where they end up being. Show them that going all the way to Crazytown doesn’t mean just stopping with the Crazytown ideas, but using them as raw material. It helps lift the overall level and range of ideas. And make sure you’ve created a safe space where people will feel free to be a bit braver than they normally are.

Frame the challenge as a question

Next, frame whatever it is that you need ideas for as a question that people can get their teeth into. For example:

  • “How might we improve this [product/feature/etc] for our customers?”
  • “What would make [target market consumers] want to buy our [product/service/etc]?”

Welcome to Crazytown, population: you!

Now, here comes the fun part. Blow open that question by taking it to extremes. Pick an aspect of your question and ask it as if a Crazytown resident asked it. Take a ho-hum question and imagine you’re at the pub with Billy Connolly, Ron Burgundy and Yoda, and play out the conversation. Turn it into a ‘What if…?” of a “How about…?” To wit:

  • “What would make people break in and steal our [product/service/etc] because it’s so good?”
  • “How could our service actually turn Sauron into a nice guy?”
  • “We need to speed up the journey of shopping at our supermarket. What if we just shot the food into bags for them?”
  • “Our product has 4 drawers. Why not 40? or 400? or 1 with a carousel inside it?”

Make sure you’re writing down and/or sketching all the random things that come up. As soon as you make those things visible, you’ll be amazed at how that triggers even more random things and connections.

I hear you. It’s crazy and stupid, even irrelevant. But that’s the point. Do it just so that you have some weird out-there ideas that you can then steal from, in ways that are relevant for your particular problem.

Get back on that train

Then get back on the train, go back to Ho-Hum Normaltown, and pick apart what you’ve generated. You should have some new idea territories to extend in more — ahem — rational ways. Examples:

  • “Well, obviously we wouldn’t have a space portal inside our wardrobe product… but mirrors inside it might make it appear larger. We should try prototyping that.”
  • “We can’t actually fit an entire espresso machine in a mobile phone…. but what if we partnered with a commercial espresso machine maker to include a feature where the machine can receive texts for what customers want?”

Go get a ticket to Crazytown

So give it a go, I’d be interested to hear if and how this approach works for you. And say hi to Unikitty for me.

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