Wanna get creative? What to do before you brainstorm

It was almost 10 years ago when I joined the ranks of agency life. At that time, what seems like a lifetime ago, my colleagues and I were still lost in the daily task of pushing out press releases. We were only on the cusp of re-evaluating terms such as “PR ad value” and “impressions multipliers.” And paid syndication? Now that was a foreign language.

Having come from a corporate in-house environment, when I stepped foot into the agency world, the concept of a group brainstorm was also somewhat amazing to me. “So you actually sit around a table and spit out off-the-cuff ideas, beer in hand, and call it work? Well!” I thought, “This agency gig is going to be fun!”

On the contrary, most of what I share in this article about generating creative ideas comes from years of participating in traditional group brainstorms with only mediocre success. To be clear, group brainstorming is not ineffective – it just shouldn’t be thought of as a single event. In this spirit, the next time you’re charged with coming up with “the big idea,” before you jump feet first into a group brainstorm, use the following tips as your compass.

1. Revisit individual thought. The point of brainstorming is to set aside uninterrupted time to think about how to solve a problem. But this doesn’t mean brainstorming has to always be done in a group setting to be successful. In other words, first allow yourself one-on one-time with your own imagination and curiosity. Then, when the group brainstorming session does happen, you will have a few boundaries for creative ideas already in place – versus a blank slate.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. Steve Jobs, entrepreneur, marketer, inventor

2. Read. Everything. The New Yorker. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. People Magazine. Your grandmother’s love letters. Your neighbor’s mid-life crisis blog. YOUR DAILY NEWSPAPER. It’s no secret: Collecting ideas and bits of knowledge from the world around us and making connections between these dots is what fuels creative thinking and new ideas.

3. Embrace diversity. In this case, use your own dinner table as a focus group. When searching for, or when trying to fine-tune an idea, invest time throwing ideas against the wall with the people you are closest to. Over a burger (or, in line with my nod to Julia Child, a cassoulet, perhaps), grab a seat at the dinner table and stress-test your concepts. See if they actually work. If anyone, those you have close relationships with, will be able to provide you with their honest opinions and may even fuel the fire with their own ideas to consider.

The more of these [LEGO] building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become. Maria Popova, writer, blogger, critic

4. Think like a plagiarist – but stay original. Simply put, doing a search to see how other industries and other organizations are addressing similar challenges should not be looked at as cheating. Rather, it can spur creativity – new ways to think about connecting the dots. The nutshell: embrace influence, collect ideas, and remix and reimagine them to discover your own unique path.

Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” Austin Kleon, artist, best-selling author

5. Now you’re ready for that brainstorm. I guarantee your group brainstorms will be more effective if everyone enters it with some initial ideas cooking. Keep in mind, though, that being too rigid in how the group brainstorming session is executed can also kill the seeds of exceptional ideas. So allow for tangents, inject humor and continue to welcome beer. Sometimes going off in different directions during a conversation fuels inspiration and opens up opportunities for a wider range of connections to be made.

Check out this infographic. Beer vs. Coffee: How to best fuel up for your brainstorm, from I Love Coffee.

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