by John Monks
A couple of weeks ago I flew over to Dusseldorf to give a guest lecture at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. Even typing the idea that I’m a lecturer makes me smile - but that’s what I did! This is an annual treat for me: experiencing Germany and being immersed in the energy and ideas of a global group of young people.
This year was doubly exciting, as I was also asked to judge the MBA program’s Future Leaders Fundraising Challenge for the second time.
The FLFC is in its second year now and is the brilliant brainchild of my friend Prof. Jochen Menges. MBA students are given Euro150 and subsequently challenged to raise as much money as possibly for Save the Children; one of the world’s most inspiring charities.
I was at the Challenge speaking about how to work creatively in teams. There are many qualities that a creative leader needs and one of the most important is how to harness the creative potential of multiple people at once. We covered numerous ways in which teams can learn to work well together and how to deal with the inevitable tension that will arise if everyone is really on fire.
I introduced our Creative Canvas; a tool we’ve developed to help people get to really great ideas. In essence it’s not much more than a blank sheet of paper. For many a blank sheet is something wonderful: a fresh start, a new opportunity. In many cases though it’s paralysing, creating a feeling of pressure. We’ve added a grid and a few instructions to help people come up with lots of ideas.
The idea is simple, respond to exactly the same design brief in as many ways as possible, within a defined time-period. For example “draw 12 unique pictures of an apple in under 15 minutes”. The brief sounds simple - draw an apple, though there is a catch - each apple must be unique. What generally happens is that the first 6 apples that everyone draws are broadly similar. Almost everyone comes up with them.
However, the last couple of ideas on everyone’s canvases will often look quite different.
They are more original and interesting. This behaviour is well understood in the field of design science. What’s known as the Fixation Effect always comes into play when people start developing new ideas. That is, they instinctively reach for concepts that are in their short-term memory, that are easily within their reach. What that results in is “me too” ideas, which are derivative and unoriginal.
To develop genuinely novel ideas, people need to think “expansively”, which is considerably harder. It requires them to question previous assumptions “hey, why do I always draw the apple side on, why don’t I draw it from below”, “What if the apple was sliced?”, “What if the apple was baked?”, “What does it look like in the dark?” But, in order to get to those expansive ideas, you have to get the predictable boring ones out of the way first. So, our canvas is crudely saying - answer your brief enough times that your brain begins to hurt and you start to produce surprising things that people respond to by saying “I hadn’t ever thought about it like that!”
This concept of producing lots of mediocre ideas to get to a brilliant one is very well understood by one of the most prolific inventors, Thomas Edison: