How to Produce New Ideas, or “Innovative and Creative Thinking 101”

Don't expect any creative thinking time from this environment. (Credit: John Seb Barber)
Don’t expect any creative thinking time from this environment. (Credit: John Seb Barber)

When we present our innovation process or new ideas for clients, one of the most common first questions is “How do you think like that?”

This applies to all companies, from small start-ups to very large financial services organisations.

When the question is asked, the rest of the audience often pick up their pens as though we’re going to answer with a poignant, silver bullet answer. But as soon as we do answer, you can see the disappointment in everyone’s eyes.

I’m sorry, but the answer is much simpler than they expected.

Here are the key methods that we use at Endava to broaden our horizons, to think of new stuff, to help our clients with their business challenges.

Embrace change

You can’t think of new ideas by having the same routine day after day.

You need to change several factors to enable your mind to think differently.

I have a friend who travels to work in the City every day. She catches the same train, sits in the same carriage and often the same seat, every day to work. Then she has the same breakfast from the same coffee shop, and goes to her desk. She has had the same routine for the first 30 minutes at her desk. She’s had this routine for over five years. Personally, just thinking about this repetitive drill makes me feel stressed. It is almost impossible to think creatively when you have this level of repetitiveness for five-sevenths of your life.

My favourite book on thinking creatively is ?What If! How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work. The book starts out by describing our minds and thought processes like rivers. Our thought process is like a river channel – a bit like a railway track. We start thinking in one river channel and it’s really hard to jump from one channel to another. You need to learn how to jump between channels. The techniques below still help me to jump like this.

This chap looks like he's thinking creatively. (Credit: Laura Hadden)
This chap looks like he’s thinking creatively. (Credit: Laura Hadden)

Do you read a newspaper (paper or electronic version)? If so, try reading a different newspaper or magazine every so often. I like The Times newspaper (especially the Sunday Times), but every so often I read another title. In fact, during the Christmas holidays last year, I read the FT every day of the holiday and ended up cutting out a few articles out because they were so interesting. That’s something else… if you buy a paper version, keep press clippings for future reference or to distribute to colleagues.

Without intentionally thinking about it, I’m sitting here listening to Spotify and decided to listen to a different type of music to my usual playlists. If you have a preferred radio station, listen to a different one. Go on to BBC iPlayer and try listening to a radio show you haven’t heard before. If you usually read a newspaper on the way into work, download a radio show and listen to that instead.

Humans aren’t designed to sit at desks thinking for hours on end. So go for a walk every so often. Go to a part of the office you haven’t been to before. Go for a walk outside to a place you haven’t been to before. Wander. Most of us don’t wander any more. But wandering removes stress and helps us think more laterally.

There’s a reason senior executives hold ‘off-site’ meetings. It’s because trying to think about a company strategy in the same place each time isn’t conducive to thinking broadly. When I worked a Finnish telco in the 1990s, we’d do brainstorming sessions in a local pub (which was empty during the day). And we’d keep changing the pub. Some of the best products and patents that we created came from those ‘off-site’ sessions. Try it the next time you hold a meeting where you’re expecting some creative thinking.

One of my favourite techniques is to speak to other people in your organisation that you don’t usually interact with. Americans find this easier than us Brits. Next time you’re making a coffee in the office communal area, speak to someone in there that you don’t recognise. Ask them what they’re working on. Ask for some feedback on something you’re working on. This new perspective is enlightening.

If you like that suggestion, move your desk every so often. In today’s hot-desk work environment, just picking up your laptop and working at a different desk can be enough. A different window view can sometimes trigger very different thoughts.

Back to the original story of my friend… I travel into work using different transport almost every day. From a motorbike to cycling to the Tube, and working from home. Even when I cycle into work, I often vary my route on consecutive days. It’s all part of embracing change.

Once you’ve started changing your commute and behaviour patterns such as speaking to strangers in the same company (doesn’t that sound ridiculous), try eating a different type of lunch at work to what you’ve eaten the last few days. If you usually go to a takeaway during your lunch break, bring in sandwiches or other food. Try a different cuisine. Just try something different.

Read a lot

I find that reading helps my lateral thinking enormously. I read a variety of blogs. I am asked about that reading list so often that I regularly update that post, and now I list other web articles I’ve read. When I have a spare minute, I’ll often look at my Twitter feed and just read something at random.

Last year I decided to read Edward Snowden’s book mainly because I didn’t agree with his viewpoint of personal data. It was the first time I’d read a book because I didn’t agree with the author’s view. It was enlightening, and even though it didn’t change my opinion, I’m now much more empathetic towards campaigners for personal privacy.

Social media is a great way to quickly get fresh ideas from lots of people
Social media is a great way to quickly get fresh ideas from lots of people

Sometimes of course, you’ll get stuck on a solution and need to cast the net a little wider. A couple of years ago, we were working with a local council and needed some feedback on why users would contact a council in the first place. For these types of situations, social media is a perfect tool. I posted an open question on Facebook. Within a day I had a couple of dozen responses, including friends from abroad which further opened our thinking back in the office.

Awareness

The next time you walk into a shop, look at the detail of the experience. Look at the shop front, the staff and the products. Go to an area of the shop you wouldn’t normally consider. You can also do the same with a website you might visit during your lunch break. Become more aware of what’s going on. What are the colours? What parts of the site do you like and what would you change if it were yours?

In the digital world, when creating user interfaces, take a look at websites, apps and other experiences that you have noticed. Take the best parts from those – not just the presentation but the usability. If you create a text box, would it make sense to have an auto-complete facility so that as the user starts typing, the form helps them complete the text box? These might seem to be small details, but the more detail you start taking in on your daily life, the better quality work you’ll produce.

The next time you buy a specific product, take a step back and think “Why did I choose this particular product?” Become more conscious of your subconscious decisions.

Travelling enables us to see how people in other countries and cultures approach similar challenges. The next time you travel, look at the details again. If locals use smartphones, what apps are they using? What websites do they use? Go to them, hit Translate to English in Google Chrome and see if there’s anything you can learn from this new experience. If you work in payments and travel to the US, watch people paying through Apple Pay. Try using Uber instead of a usual minicab or taxi. Look at the details of the experience. I guarantee you’ll learn something.

Consciously examining the detail of other organisations will help enhance your skill of seeing an experience through the eyes of a customer. That customer could be an “internal client”, a B2B engagement or an end-user. The next time you need to enhance your product or service, this skill will have become more valuable. When was the last time you sat next to one of these customers and watched how they use your product?

Attitude

I’ll finish with two closing comments which various bosses in my career have taught me.

  1. Treat every day at work like it’s your first day at the company. Take on the enthusiasm, boldness and fresh thinking of a new joiner. Behave as though you are the product owner for what you are working on – be brave and open with recommendations and decisions.
  2. Top tip: Find a ying to your newly found yang, or a yang to your new ying
    Top tip: Find a ying to your newly found yang, or a yang to your new ying

    With your new-found levels of enthusiasm, find a yang to your ying to help balance your levels of continuous excitement. I’m not suggesting you find someone to be negative with all of your ideas, but in the corporate world you do need someone (or a group of people) who you can approach and have a sensible discussion about new ideas. Exploring new ideas with a colleague will often

Good luck with you pursuit of creative thinking.

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