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Entrepreneurs often assume that the biggest barrier to developing great ideas is a shortage of time or resources — but that’s not true. It’s the lack of playfulness in their innovation processes.
According to recent reporting by Fundera, more than 70% of business owners work more than 40 hours per week, and almost 20% work more than 60 hours per week. Yet, they still lack creative solutions to their problems. As someone who spent years as the head of innovation and creativity at Disney, I can tell you exactly why: They’re not leveraging the natural way the brain comes up with “Eureka!” moments.
Let me put this a different way. When do you get your best, brightest, most out-of-the-box ideas? While you’re in the shower, walking your dog, working out, commuting, falling asleep or waking up? Then you’re like most humans on the planet. But I can guarantee you didn’t say, “While I’m at work, of course.”
Even though we’re paid to have big ideas at work, we never have them there. Work is too chaotic and distracting. Our brains focus on emails, presentations and reports. But the second we step away from our occupational lives, we move from what I call a “busy beta” state of mind to an alpha one. In busy beta, the door between the conscious and subconscious brain is firmly closed. In alpha, that door is flung wide open.
How, then, do you get your employees to move toward an alpha state of mind on demand when you’re eager to come up with new concepts for the company? Follow these steps.
1. Start tackling challenges before you need answers
Do not brief a challenge to your employees on the same day you need them to create and deploy a solution. Give at least a week for everyone to ideate, and then bring them together to talk about their thoughts.
This is the opposite of what usually happens in the workplace, typically called a brainstorming session. Unfortunately, brainstorming rarely produces anything innovative because it’s too tied to the work atmosphere. People need stimuli unrelated to work (e.g., walking their dog, testing a cheesecake recipe, playing an instrument) to gain unfettered access to their unconscious brains.
Remember: It’s too late if you wait until the house is burning to think of a fire prevention plan. You need to start planning in advance so everyone can allow their wild, fantastic notions to surface. That way, you can tap into the power of alpha waves, which are essential for any kind of relaxed, creative process, per Microsoft research.
2. Write down all the rules that are part of your problem
I’ve designed a two-step innovation tool called “What If?” that tears down plenty of the roadblocks to creativity and gives people better access to their imaginations. The first step to “What If?” involves writing down all the rules that are holding you or your team back.
For instance, consider Walt Disney’s dilemma when he wanted to release his film Fantasia. He was frustrated because he couldn’t pump mist or heat into theaters. Why? Theaters wouldn’t let him. Accordingly, he wrote down all the rules of going to a movie theater: I must sit. I must be quiet. I must pay to get in. I can expect it to be dark. I can’t control the environment.
By writing these rules down, Disney could more clearly see everything that was getting in his way. This allowed him to move on to the second step of “What If?” — which I outline below.
3. Break one of the rules you listed
This is the fun, absurd, provocative part that allows the creative rubber to meet the road. Look at the list of rules you generated. Choose one and come up with audacious ways to break it. In Disney’s case, it was to worry less about controlling the movie theater environment by taking his movies out of the theater. He considered having people dress in costumes in different themed lands so he could control the story and engage the audience. Enter the concept for Disneyland.
The founders of Netflix used this practice as well. They were fed up with the rules and limits of consumer video rentals. They didn’t want consumers to have to drive to the store during business hours, choose a limited number of videos from a limited stock, drive back home and return everything within a few days or pay a late fee. The rule Netflix chose to break was having a physical store. Inspired by the internet, the company’s leaders made it possible for customers to order movies online. Later, Netflix took the concept a step further by becoming a streaming platform.
The good part about this exercise is that you don’t need the resources of Disney or Netflix to do it. You just need to remain open-minded.
4. Take nothing off the table
To be sure, some of the responses you’ll get when you go through the rule-breaking experience will seem strange and perhaps even shocking. Dig around for the truth, though. It’s often buried deep within off-the-wall suggestions.
In the 1960s, a small company in Great Britain that made drinking glasses had a big issue. The company needed more production and less rampant product breakage. To figure out what was happening, the leadership team observed the packing operations. They found that the employees systematically packed 12 glasses in two layers in one cardboard box. Separating the glasses were newspapers. And guess what? The workers were spending a lot of time reading the newspapers and not concentrating on the quality of their work.
The unspoken “rule,” therefore, was that everyone was diving into the newspaper first and their jobs second. To break this rule, someone suggested that the employees shouldn’t be able to see anything. If they couldn’t see, they couldn’t read the paper. It was a horrible idea until someone else used it as a springboard: Why didn’t the company hire visually impaired individuals? Aha. The company moved forward, upping its production, lowering prices and receiving a salary subsidy for hiring people with disabilities.
The point is that you can’t keep trying to innovate the same way you’ve always done. It’s just not going to work, and you’ll waste even more precious time. Instead, infuse a sense of playfulness into your innovation practices. Write some rules. Pose some “What If?” questions. Then, break the status quo. The moment you take these steps, you’ll start seeing more imagination from your team and less resistance to change.