“We’re never going to survive unless we get a little bit crazy”
I heard “Crazy” by Seal the other day — not on my normal rotation, FYI, just a snippet on a podcast — and I couldn’t help but relate this line back to my presentation “Marketing: The Creative Process” I gave at CAMEX in Houston. In it, I stressed the importance of looking at situations differently in order to come up with new, truly innovative ideas.
As humans, we’re hardwired to follow patterns to relate new problems back to old ones in order to solve them in similar ways — to essentially do what we’ve always done. In our industry right now, doing “what we’ve always done” may not result in the most success. It’s hard to argue against the idea that the stores who have pursued new opportunities while adhering to their fundamental objectives are the ones we consider innovators and have had the most success in these changing times.
As a college store retailer, you are currently faced with fast-moving, constantly evolving trends, and more competition yet possibly fewer resources than ever before. It’s time to get a little bit crazy. It’s time for you to become an innovator and bring new, creative ideas and strategies to your store.
You don’t need a full marketing staff on hand to make this happen: the change you wish to see in the world starts with you! This process will help any individual or team, independent of personalities, change the way they think in order to develop new ideas and streamline the creative process:
1. Formalize brainstorming
So you want to come up with new and better ideas. Fantastic! A lot of these methods and techniques I learned from Edward de Bono’s strategies presented in his book, “Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step.” I highly recommend it for those wishing to be innovators and for managers who want their employees to take initiative.
When getting started, it’s important to first identify the problem you’re trying to solve or the goal you’re trying to achieve. Be as specific as possible: for example, “reaching more students on social media with Snapchat” is a much better topic to brainstorm than simply “reaching more students.” The more granular you can be, the better. Compile any data, facts and assumptions before you get started brainstorming.
It’s important to schedule time to brainstorm, even if it’s by yourself. If you’re waiting for ideas to suddenly hit you while you’re already busy with everything else you need to do, it’s probably not going to happen. You need to step away from all distractors and focus on the central problem.
I suggest freeing your mind ahead of time, simply by taking a break or maybe by meditating, listening to music or taking a walk in advance of the session. Whatever works for each person involved is best — everyone is different. At the beginning of the session, if you have time and think it’s necessary for your team, you can play a quick game to get things going and warm up your minds. My team does this on occasion and has played Telestrations and Rory’s Story Cubes among others we’ve found on creative blogs. These games seem to decrease inhibitions when the actual brainstorming starts.
If you are working in a team, it’s best to have a chairperson who is keeping the session focused on the central problem or goal. Also, have a note taker that can list all ideas. Brainstorming sessions shouldn’t last more than 45 minutes and should be terminated when people still have ideas, not when the last one has been eked out. If that’s only 20 minutes, don’t waste additional time. Save all ideas from all sessions and refer to them on occasion. An idea not picked now may make for a great one later.
2. Break free from patterns and search for alternatives
“Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step” teaches lateral thinking, a term that de Bono coined in 1967. When someone is thinking laterally, they are not moving towards the first solution as directly as possible, which is defined as vertical thinking; they are looking for alternatives that wouldn’t necessarily be found through direct and traditional thinking.
Identifying the dominant idea — the way you define your problem or goal — is crucial for being able to distance yourself from it and to begin to identify not-so-obvious solutions. This is the pattern you’re trying to break free from. Crucial factors should also be identified — elements that need to be included in all alternatives, because if they’re not, it changes the situation too drastically. For example, let's say you're brainstorming about buyback. Critical factors would include books, students and cash on hand, while things like buyback counters might not be as important. The fewer non-critical factors you focus on, the more you’ll be able to break free from the pattern and come up with something innovative.
When the brainstorming session begins, the chairperson needs to state the problem or goal, share any necessary facts, make sure everyone can identify the dominant idea and the crucial factors and state the rules for the session. The rules are basic:
- Always focus on the problem or goal at hand.
- Search for alternatives.
- No vertical thinking is allowed.
- There is no response too crazy.
- Get as many solutions as possible on paper.
- Don’t discuss if a solution is viable or not.
3. Ask the right questions to keep ideas flowing
If the session stalls, the chairperson can use a variety of techniques to create provocation and stimulate new ideas. Often a group of people feeding off each other will provide enough provocation, but here are some techniques de Bono suggests to move the process along:
- Fractionation: Break the problem apart to stimulate restructuring in order to come up with something new.
- Reversal: What is the end point of your problem? Now define the process in reverse. By looking at it differently, do any ideas come from it?
- Restate: Look at it through different eyes. How would different audiences like faculty or students state this? How would Harry Potter or a fly on the wall state it?
- Challenge assumptions: Keep asking “why?” like a toddler. State an alternative idea and keep asking why. Often you’ll see components that you haven’t noticed before.
- Develop analogies: What can you compare this to? Once you have an analogy or several, you can look at their dominant ideas and critical factors and apply them back to your problem.
- Choice of entry point: Out of habit, you probably “enter” your problem at the same place every time you look at it, like focusing on your buyback strategy based on the moment students walk in the door. Try a different point of entry, such as the moment students see your advertising; this will restructure how you view it.
- Random stimulation: Try introducing a random word or object. Apply it to your problem. This will certainly restructure the way you’ve always looked at it and will hopefully provide the provocation you need to search for alternatives.
4. Stop being a critic and start being a creator
The #1 introspection I had while researching this topic is that within our creative group while brainstorming, we’re too hard on ourselves and on each other. If we’re not careful, we’ll spend 30 minutes shooting our own ideas down and walking away just as lost as we were when we started. I’m sure you have dealt with this in your creative sessions too. de Bono explains that Western philosophy tends to be argumentative. Vertical thinking wants us to get to a solution quickly, analyzing it to be sure that it is viable. There is a place for analytical and logical thinking in the creative process, but it is after the brainstorming sessions where only lateral thinking is involved.
If you have a team that is regularly tasked with coming up with new ideas, you should teach them the lateral thinking process so they all understand it enough to apply it in your creative sessions. And as mentioned before, the chairperson should be the expert so they know the questions to ask to keep thinking moving laterally. Remember, coming up with the most alternatives possible will result in restructuring the pattern and allow you to come up with truly new and innovative ideas. It’s time to get a little bit crazy and start being the change you wish to see in your store, and in the world!