Within Reach: How to Find New Ideas in the New Year

January 4, 2016

[ezra bailey/taxi/getty]
[ezra bailey/taxi/getty]

Have you ever been desperate for a great idea? Or faced pressure from your boss to “think outside the box” or “out-think the competition?”

If you answered “yes,” then you likely know that chaotic feeling of a brainstorm session — having dozens and dozens of seemingly good ideas, but not knowing which would best solve the problem or meet the goals of the project.

When searching for an idea or trying to cull through several, 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?

Creating a safe environment

Companies like Google, Apple and Tesla are often labeled as “idea factories,” but the reality is only one in five working adults believes that management supports their entrepreneurial ideas, according to a recent Accenture study. Workers feel that management won’t champion their ideas, or they feel criticized for suggesting a new way of doing something.

To unlock more ideas within your organization, change your mindset and your organization’s mindset. Start thinking like an entrepreneur and ask: “How can we disrupt our industry?”

If you’re a business owner or a manager, then create a safe environment that allows people to share ideas and solve problems.

Deciding where to start

While some would say that there shouldn’t be any boundaries on idea generation, there should be a place that provides focus to the process. Ask yourself: 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 forward. When you prioritize championing your customer’s success and happiness, you win too.

To help get the juices flowing, put yourself in your customers’ shoes and think about what it is that bugs you most about your company’s product or service. If that doesn’t work, then think like an entrepreneur who wants to enter your market and put your company out of business — completely changing the rules of the game.

Improving the customer experience doesn’t necessarily mean improving the physical product by adding a new feature. An entrepreneur might be considering these questions: Could the package be changed? Could product delivery be altered? Could the online experience be simpler or more user-friendly? Is there a market segment that we’re ignoring or overlooking?

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 become smarter, more relevant and easier to sell.

Fueling 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 of those smart ideas:

• Connect the dots. Maria Popova, founder and editor of the blog Brainpickings.org, believes that creativity comes from a place where existing pieces of knowledge, ideas, memories and inspiration combine to create something new. The challenge is looking beyond the obvious to discover the details of your customer’s experience. After that, connect the dots for a rich, deep pool of insight.

• Look at the data under your nose. Don’t fall into the group of idea-starved organizations and individuals who have been operating from long-held, static perceptions of their customers. Take a closer look at the data, and you might find a treasure trove of useful information.

• Know your customer. Don’t assume that you know what your customers want. Ask them what challenges they are facing. If you have a perceived base of loyal customers, then avoid assumptions based on how you always do things. Get to know them. Meet them face-to-face, call them or share a relevant article with them.

• Observe your customers. Have you witnessed your customers using your product? If not, go to the retail floor and work directly with a customer to solve their problem. Spend an afternoon listening or responding to calls and live online chats.

• Let your ideas grow. 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 sharing ideas that build on the knowledge we’ve accumulated. Set up a wall or whiteboard in your workplace where you can post ideas as they strike you. Add words, photos, drawings and diagrams that express an idea and invite others to share their ideas too.

• Start a new habit. Author and entrepreneur James Altucher recommends dedicating 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.

• Mix it up. If you’re struggling to generate ideas or if your ideas seem to be falling flat, find other people to hang with who bring out your energy. Do you freely exchange ideas with 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? Collaborate with people outside work or consider joining a Meetup group that shares your interests.

• Invite your customers into the kitchen. Sometimes you need your customers to help you create. Encourage them to share photos, videos and other ideas through social media, email and workshops, or invite them to your 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, then be prepared to capture an idea that emerges during the conversation. If you see something that looks cool, snap a photo or video with your smartphone, then store your ideas in a dedicated folder on your device.

• Dedicate time on your calendar to be creative. It’s easy to lose track of ourselves with our day-to-day work. If you feel like you just don’t have time to focus on generating ideas, then dedicate some time each week or month. This means turning off everything and finding the peace and quiet you need.

• Think like a contrarian. Imagine if drones delivered your product. What if you created software that allowed people to rent out their own cars? What if a live human being answered every single phone call that your company received, versus an automated voice system? Think crazy. Go to the extremes. Do the opposite. There might be an idea that will disrupt the entire industry.

• Dig up old mousetraps. Old proposals, strategic plans and project outlines are lying around every organization. Many contain brilliant ideas that weren’t right for their time or didn’t have someone to champion them. Don’t throw them out, but see if you can improve on them.

The end game of ideation is to spark change. But the spirit lies in the joy of wondering. Time is short. Go find the people, organizations and projects that bring out the best in you. The more you invest in yourself and stimulate your curiosity, the more those “happy accidents” (which become the big ideas you often read about) will happen.

Stephen Dupont, APR

Stephen Dupont, APR, is vice president of public relations and branded content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand-marketing firm based in Minneapolis. He blogs at www.stephendupont.co. Contact him at stephen.dupont@pockethercules.com.


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