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Secrets to Being a Great Idea Person

Jennifer MuellerHave you ever been in a brainstorming meeting that wasn’t a waste of time? Chances are no if the goal was to hit upon something truly original and innovative.

“Often in a business setting, people are using best practices in brainstorming, and that’s a large part of the problem,” says Jennifer Mueller, associate professor of management at the University of San Diego School of Business and author of Creative Change: Why We Resist It… How We Can Embrace It. “How can you choose something new when the criterion is what has been successful?”

Similarly, we often prepare for brainstorming sessions by researching the competition. So we arrive with heads packed with ideas that have already been done, which in turn define what seems feasible.  

Change Where You’re Coming From

To really break ground, Mueller has found that it’s tremendously helpful when generating ideas to take the perspective of different groups that are not your customer or targeted demographic.

“If you take the position of the customer, you’ll come up with what already exists but faster or cheaper,” Mueller explains. “But by shifting your self-concept position—say, from your working mom customer to her kids or their grandparents—you broaden your considerations and increase the novelty of your ideas.”

Change How You Evaluate Ideas

Yet don’t spend too much time brainstorming, Mueller cautions. “Limit it to 20 percent of the meeting and give the rest of the time to assessing everyone’s ideas,” she says. “It isn’t easy to recognize the best creative ideas. In fact, they’re often the ones that people have a negative knee-jerk reaction to.”

That’s why Mueller recommends structuring the process of evaluating ideas. “Talk about the crazy ones that people hate the most, and then table them,” she says. “Let them incubate while you discuss all the other ideas.” She says then to go back to the bizarro ideas, balance the infeasibility arguments with ways to make the ideas work and be better. Search for analogies to change the terms you’re using and the tracks your brains are on. Ask why questions: why do we do it this way, why do other companies do it their way, etc.

In the end, the genius idea you go with may very well be the wacky one that you previously would have shot down.

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