Have you ever had an idea—a brilliant idea—that you couldn’t wait to dive into? And have you ever experienced the frustration of hitting a roadblock after pouring hours and hours into your brilliant idea?
Everyone knows this feeling. The typical process looks like this:
- You have a moment of inspiration.
- You dedicate every spare moment to making this idea a reality.
- You spend every hour of the day half-thinking about your idea.
- A month down the road, you hit a roadblock you can’t overcome.
- You slowly spend less time on your idea, until your enthusiasm completely dies.
It’s an exhausting, ultimately fruitless process that we’ve all experienced. However, it’s also completely unnecessary.
As a consultant, I am thrown into a lot of different business mysteries. No two businesses are the same, and no two problems are identical, and so I have to constantly generate and execute new ideas in order to succeed.
Needless to say, I am extremely familiar with creative roadblocks. I’ve developed an entire repeatable process for overcoming them, that I use every time I find myself coming up short. It starts with:
Give Your Imagination Space to Work
First, it is important to eliminate distractions. Anyone can raise their imagination quotient simply by cultivating silence and eliminating the distractions around them.
A blinking phone or a TV blaring in the background prevents one from reaching those deep recesses of the mind necessary to overcome a problem. Sitting in silence will allow what is in one’s mind to come out. Soothing background music or a movie you have seen a thousand times can work also, if it acts as white noise to buffer against random noises or visual distractions.
As Cal Newport says in his phenomenal book Deep Work, “If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. “
In fact, in my work with clients I have seen “context switching” be a huge loss to creative and productive work. Engineers deep in thought who simply had an email notification pop up, lost as much as 14 minutes of time to get back into flow.
Use Empathy to Avoid Obstacles
I like to approach a problem as if it were a case. First, determine if it is a puzzle or mystery. Don’t laugh, this can save a lot of time. Puzzles are situations where the problem is known, and you just need to solve it. With a big enough calculator, you can nail it. Mysteries are another matter – you don’t even know what the real problem is, and to jump into problem-solving mode is a recipe for disaster, or at least a risk that you will spend time finding a great answer, but to the wrong problem. So, first sort out if you know what the real problem is. Here is an approach I use:
- What – understand the context and situation, with some quick research
- Who – identify the players involved
- Why – understand their motivations
The Who step may be the most important. If there are people involved, I try to walk in their shoes in order to understand what they are thinking and feeling. It is important to reflect, assess, and reflect because there is so much more going on underneath the surface than just what is easily observed.
The fact that clients hire me and my firm in the first place means their problem is difficult, and likely ambiguous. This means that they have a need or a broad goal, but probably aren’t 100% clear about what they want, and are constrained in how to go about solving it.
I use empathy to understand how the stakeholders see the situation, what they need and want, and how their biases. This is critical to make sure I don’t start down a path that will end in an insurmountable roadblock, or solve a problem that does not meet their objectives.
If this sounds a little familiar, it should be. Empathy is an important part of design thinking, a human-centric method for increasing the creative confidence of people who are operating in an environment of ambiguity but also great opportunity. Design thinking has gained serious momentum in recent years and moved beyond new product development to process and even organizational design. My firm Infosys has invested heavily and taken a leadership role in applying design thinking to a broader set of challenges and helped clients transform their business.
Test Your Hypothesis with a 90/10 Approach
Once you understand the situation and the people involved, formulate a hypothesis. This part is straightforward: identify the problem, make an educated estimate, identify major variables, ask questions, and identify patterns and connections.
Testing the hypothesis is a trickier proposition. It’s easy to take a hypothesis that is fundamentally flawed somehow and spend days trying to make it work. Young consultants do this all the time, and burns up large amounts of their time and energy.
Instead, I create a hypothesis and test it using a 90/10 approach. What I mean by that, is that I take an idea 10% of the way and then test it. If it doesn’t make sense, I quickly abandon it. I repeat this process until one seems to have promise, then spend time on it.
The 90/10 principle is a lot like the Pareto Principle which states that 20% of the invested input is responsible for 80% of the results obtained. An example of this is that 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your salespeople. 90/10 simply takes it farther, and applies agile thinking to move through the prioritization process quickly.
Be Confident in Your Conclusion
After testing my hypothesis, I come to a conclusion. I make sure to take a stand, to get behind that conclusion in no uncertain terms. I might be wrong, and in fact I probably will be early in an engagement, but I take a stand – because that allows you to prove it right or wrong. Most people try to be safe and include caveats and what I call “weasel words,” ambiguous doublespeak covers the broadest set of outcomes possible. (In)famous weasel words are words like arguably, conceivably, and help. A more benign set of ambiguous words can be sometimes, potentially, in some cases, and… you get the picture. These phrases are needed at the end of a formal report or legal document, but they have no place in early conclusions. The clearer the conclusion, the easier you can test, accept or refute, learn from it, and then move on.
I believe in a principle called creative confidence, which expounds upon the importance of one taking a stand and being confident in one’s narrative. In the words of innovator Ben Grossman-Kahn, it is “having the freedom and courage to fail or take creative risks and the knowledge that all of the ideas you create have value.”
This confidence extends throughout the entire creative process. You need courage and confidence to even put forth a hypothesis, and in order to push yourself towards the best possible conclusion, you need to have absolute confidence in yourself and your ability to draw insights.
However, you must couple this confidence with self-awareness. Approach problems with the confidence that you will can solve them, but also with the expectation that you will need to (get to!) learn something new in the process.
As Tom Kelley, IDEO Partner and co-author of the book Creative Confidence, says “No matter how high you rise in your career, no matter how much expertise you gain, you still need to keep your knowledge and your insights refreshed. Otherwise, you may develop a false confidence in what you already “know” that might lead you to the wrong decision.”
How Using This Process Can Literally Save Lives
I had a client who made high-profile medical products such as pacemakers and other open-heart surgery devices. Tommy was no ordinary client. He was the CEO, an active inventor and innovator in a small but important medical device manufacturer. He was attempting to find a way to keep the heart beating outside of the body during operations. However, he was having difficulty overcoming some crucial roadblocks.
He understood the situation thoroughly, he was confident yet humble, and he was frequently testing ideas using his version of the 90/10 model—but he was still coming up short.
That is, until one evening when my client was inspired as he was driving home in a light rain. He activated the windshield wipers and the intermittent setting, and unconsciously he began to visualize how it accomplished the task through timed pulses. Then he made the connection with his own product, and it solved a critical design problem, even though the end products themselves had little in common.
He implemented the equivalent mechanism of intermittent wipers into his product, through how it rinsed and pulsed around the beating heart. This allowed surgeons to keep a heart healthy while outside the body for thirty minutes during operation, and the product helped save many lives.
The point is that Tommy had tested and tested, yet when he stepped back and allowed serendipitous connections through silence and reflection, it allowed him to overcome his creative roadblock.
Creative Confidence in Action
On your next big or even not so big challenge, see how this can work for you. Scan to find out the What-Who-Why, find your quiet state, take creatively confident stand, and see what happens. After all, it is a win-win scenario. If your hypothesis or prototype is great, then you have solved your problem. If not, you have learned something good and will create a better one next time.