By G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón
What if we told you that you could come up with a great idea anytime you wanted?
We'll go further. We can show you how not only to summon new and innovative concepts on command but also to teach your people the same skill. This may sound like an infomercial ("Order our revolutionary system within the next 20 minutes, and we'll throw in a set of steak knives absolutely free"), but it's true.
The five techniques outlined below have one thing in common: They free your brain to let your best ideas flow.
As it is, you undoubtedly have too much on your mind. When you're driving during rush hour, you are too busy dealing with traffic to notice the scenery and enjoy the ride. The following practices eliminate mental traffic and help you liberate the great ideas inside you desperately trying to get out.
1. Shower your way to creativity
Yep, it's absolutely true. There is a scientific theory that water hitting your head helps trigger the synapses and that's why people get great ideas in the shower. But we think it's simpler than that: The ideas occur because you are not making an effort to think. You aren't worried about anything. You are not stressed. Hence some of your best thinking occurs.
2. Sleep on it
Remember how your mom used to say, "Why don't you sleep on it, honey?" when you were wrestling with a big issue? Well, when it comes to big ideas and problem solving, Mother really does know best.
The next time you want to solve a major challenge or be unusually brilliant, think about it in bed. Don't push yourself to figure out the answer before you fall asleep. Instead, just go through the issues at hand and tell yourself that you will have the answer in the morning. In our experience, this technique amplifies the power of the shower, because there are even fewer distractions to occupy your mind when you are asleep.
You can employ an alternate version of this while awake. The next time you can't think of a name, date, or important fact, just tell yourself aloud, "I will not think about this for a while, and the answer will come to me." This technique clears the traffic in your mind and lets your subconscious go to work. Your answer will often pop into your head the moment you stop "thinking about it."
3. Engage in mind-mapping
Purging is a great way to make new connections and create bigger ideas. Have a tough challenge to solve? Get a giant piece of paper (write small if you can't find one). In each quarter of the paper, write a keyword related to the challenge. For example, if you want to plan a cool family vacation, you might write the words "destinations," "transportation," "memories," and "kids."
Then, in no particular order, begin to brainstorm any word that comes to mind when you think of each of the keywords. For example, for "Transportation": plane, train, automobile, John Candy, pillows, sleep, sleeping bag, tent, treehouse, memories, dreams, daydreams, smells, popcorn, movies, adventure, pirates, islands, Swiss Family Robinson. Eventually, you will begin to make connections, and ideas that unify the key aspects of your goal will pop off the page.
Strive for as many words as you can, and don't judge the words. Judging is looking at the traffic when you are driving—it keeps you from coming up with ideas. Eliminate the traffic.
You can employ this simple technique yourself or do it in groups to loosen up your team. Imagine how much fun you'll have explaining to your family how you came up with the idea of renting a tree house for your vacation in Costa Rica.
4. Schedule Your Daydreaming
We all have a time of day when our brains work the best. For many, it is first thing in the morning, before rush hour. Unfortunately, the CrackBerry addiction has many of us checking our e-mail just when our brains are the most capable of creating.
The moment you check your e-mail, voice mail, or to-do list, you have hijacked your imagination. You have created a mental traffic jam. Do yourself a favor and schedule daydreaming. Unplug during the time that you know you do your best thinking and find a place that makes you feel energized. A lot of people love the local coffee shop. The buzz of conversation, the smells, colors, and energy create a safe haven for the mind to wander. Some prefer the library or the park. Whichever it is, go there. Let your mind wander.
5. Yuk it up
Laughing is another great way to liberate your brain. Often consciously doing silly-seeming things will get the creative juices flowing. Spin a top. Get an ice cream cone.
As you test these five techniques, you'll find some work better than others. If it turns out you really do get your best ideas in the shower, be conscious of the circumstances under which they occurred. What was the water temperature like? How long had you been in there? What time was it? Replicate the experience.
You'll find the effort worthwhile. "The bottom line is that gifted performers are almost always made, not born, and that the journey to superior performance is for neither the faint of heart nor the impatient," says Rand Stagen, senior partner of Stagen, a management consulting firm that specializes in helping mid-market companies scale. "Just as in sports, becoming an elite performer in business requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest (often painful) self-assessment. Depending on the scope and difficulty of the skill to be learned, it will take months and probably years to achieve a high level of proficiency or mastery."
Learning how to implement these approaches is often what separates a brilliant thinker from a creative want-to-be. Really. At first, you may feel silly, but we promise they will work.
P.S. Want some more ideas? Check out our "101 Ways to Have a Great Idea".
G. Michael Maddock is founding partner, and Raphael Louis Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, a company that invents, brands, and markets products "for companies driven by innovation."