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Boost innovation with elephants, cobras, and deferred judgment

An effective strategic approach to unlocking and selecting truly innovative solutions.
A creative collage of individuals jotting down ideas on a piece of paper to boost innovation.
byfortytwo / Unsplash / collage by Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • The process of “idea finding” is rooted in the discovery of solutions to well-defined problems.
  • Generate as many potential solutions as you can without judging them.
  • Four simple techniques can lead you to the best solutions.

The challenge to developing innovative solutions is having the patience, perseverance, and sustained effort to really address a problem from a new angle. Those who master this build a game-changing skill that will separate them from the competition and deliver solutions that delight customers. 

In the innovative process, idea finding entails discovering solutions to well-defined problems. If you’ve done a good job in problem definition — the problem is so well stated that one or two solutions leap out at you — you may find it difficult to resist simply grabbing one of these solutions and running with it. Fight the temptation. Instead, generate as many potential solutions as you can without judging them. 

The more potential solutions you generate for a challenge, the more likely you are to find a superior solution. Among the many techniques for generating ideas, those based on deferring judgment and extending the effort to create multiple ideas lead to the most innovative solutions. Here are four techniques you can immediately use. 

#1. Brainstorming — One of the most effective techniques for generating solutions is brainstorming. It can be done alone or with a group. In either case, you come up with ideas for meeting your chosen problem while following these important rules: 

  • Don’t criticize any idea. 
  • Go for quantity of ideas. Quantity breeds quality, so the more ideas the better. 
  • “Hitchhike” or piggyback one idea onto another as much as possible.  
  • Freewheel as much as possible. The wilder the idea the better. It’s easier to tame a wild idea than to enliven a dull one.

Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to find a good idea from a long list than from a short one. Don’t waste time pondering what you dislike about an idea. Instead, select promising fragments and use your imagination and experience to build on them.

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Suppose you’ve defined a problem as, “How might I better attract attention from potential buyers?” A freewheeling idea might be to take along an elephant (yes, a real one!) to sales calls. While this is hardly a practical idea, it would almost certainly attract customers’ attention. Now by visualizing the idea, you might find intriguing fragments on which to build. Picturing the elephant’s trunk, you might think about taking along a travel trunk filled with contest prizes or product samples.  

#2. Blitzing — Blitzing means blowing up an idea into many more specific ideas. Here, you focus on a single idea that suggests a broader theme. For example, a team working on the challenge “How might we improve our potato chip bags?” might have come up with the idea, “to make them more useful when empty.” In order to blitz this theme, the team creates a new problem definition: “How might we make our potato chip bags more useful when empty?” Brainstorming this new challenge leads to more specific ideas, like modifying the bags to be used as trash bags for a car once the chips have been eaten.

#3. Forcing connections — This technique requires you to use your imagination to force a fit between seemingly unrelated ideas or objects. For example, a product development engineer’s challenge might be, “What new household products might we introduce?” You could make two lists. One could be a list of objects you might find in a room of the house. The second could be a list of objects from, say, the contents of your work desk. 

The wilder the idea the better. It’s easier to tame a wild idea than to enliven a dull one.

If you chose one object from each list at random, you might end up with a skylight and a pair of scissors. You could ask yourself, “How might I improve a pair of scissors by making them more like a skylight?” Ideas for solutions might include, “Put miniature lights on the scissors so you can use them in low light,” or, “Equip the scissors with a magnifying glass for visually impaired people.” You’ve forced a connection between two apparently unrelated things. 

#4. Deliberately building radical ideas — Here you select a preposterous idea from a list of possibilities and blitz it, focusing on its good aspects. For the problem definition, “How might we generate publicity for our website?” a group might select the seemingly wild idea of using a cobra as a mascot for the company. Blitzing could lead to finding mascots from among other creatures that are less lethal but just as provocative. Or the group might use the cobra figuratively to jazz up the company’s shirts and promotional material.  

Zeroing in on innovative solutions

Using these techniques deliberately helps you generate a surprising number of innovative yet practical ideas worth pursuing. How many solution ideas are worth a closer look? Use these guidelines for your selection process: 

  • Pick concrete ideas. You should be able to visualize what the idea will look like when completed.
  • Pick ideas that are easy to understand. An uninitiated bystander should be able to understand your idea.
  • Make sure the selected ideas are on-target. They should address the selected problem definition challenge rather than other related challenges.
  • Pick ideas for which an easy next step is obvious. An idea with a clear action you can implement is your best bet.

Following these guidelines will help you avoid ideas that appear noble but are too esoteric and vague.

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