How To Actually Brainstorm Productively

Researchers at MIT Sloan have figured out a framework to generate ideas that are actionable. The process they’ve come up with entails seven steps, beginning with these four, in order: 

1. Define the problem and solution space…Create boundaries in the idea-generation process.

2. Break the problem down. Use a visual technique, like diagramming.

3. Make the problem personal. How do you make a business problem personal? By getting down in the trenches and observing the individuals who are affected by the problem (and who would also be affected by your proposed solutions).

4. Seek the perspectives of outsiders. In other words, don’t solve the problem in a vacuum.

The ideas generated through this process work because the goal isn’t to simply come up with good ideas, it’s to come up with ideas that can move. Head over to Inc.com to catch all seven steps of the process and then try the process on your own or with your team.

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Here is Your Official Permission to Be a Copycat

By Neo Dhlamini

By Neo Dhlamini

On Aeon, Kat McGowan reveals research that suggests copying others’ work isn’t only undeserving of its reputation as a professional cardinal sin, it is essential to innovation:

Throughout human history, innovation – including the technological progress we cherish – has been fuelled and sustained by imitation. Copying is the mighty force that has allowed the human race to move from stone knives to remote-guided drones, from digging sticks to crops that manufacture their own pesticides. Plenty of animals can innovate, but no other species on earth can imitate with the skill and accuracy of a human being. We’re natural-born rip-off artists. To be human is to copy.

Of course, the imitative behavior in question does not include outright plagiarism, which is always wrong. Rather, the echo-like actions McGowan’s argument concerns comprise of taking cues from and building off of others’ innovative advances. Babies learn to walk by imitating adults. Writers learn to string sentences together by reading shelffuls of books. Entrepreneurs found game-changing companies by studying the successes of existing organizations.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own.

Innovation isn’t the result of a lightning bolt of genius. It’s the outcome of iterative improvements on existing knowledge. So go ahead, borrow a line of code from another developer on GitHub. Thank them for it, and build something new with it. And don’t feel guilty that you couldn’t have done it without the help of another member of the community. If our ancestors felt that way, there wouldn’t even be code to borrow in the first place.

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Overcome Anxiety by Creating Your Personal Buffer

Photo by Wan Mohd via Flickr

Photo by Wan Mohd via Flickr

Being overwhelmed can create a vicious cycle: as a result of feeling anxious, you then spend all of your energy worrying about your anxiety, which in-turn makes you even more anxious, repeating the cycle endlessly.

To break the cycle, we must find or create a place for ourselves where we can go to get away from it all, both mentally and physically. This is particularly true of the modern-day work environment, where we not only worry about criticism from our boss or co-workers, but also have to deal with conflicts and competition, staying in-the-loop with an endless stream of emails or notifications, and managing complaints around our work, performance, and product.

Researchers like Sandra L. Bloom, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, explain that high levels of stress in the workplace are akin to a stressful environment for children. Neither allow for healthy development:

To develop normally, children require environmental stress sufficient to promote skills development and mastery experiences (positive stress) combined with sufficient buffering to prevent them from being overwhelmed.

That buffer is a way of building a foundation from which we can better manage the stress we’re likely to encounter. The key, says entrepreneur and author Tony Schwartz, is in finding somewhere safe and reliable where we can relax, escape our fears or worries, and most importantly: get some a rest from the stress.

The more energy we spend defending against perceived threats — most often to our sense of value and worthiness — the less energy we have available to create value and the more damage we’re likely to create. The most fundamental, powerful and enduring fuel for performance, it turns out, is a feeling of safety and trust — in ourselves and in the world around us… Building even short periods of time into every day to collect and reset yourself makes you more resilient in the face of the challenges and threats that inevitably arise.

Create daily buffers by taking a physical step away from everything, to breathe and relax. Maybe your personal buffer is going to your favorite coffee shop, finding a private room to meditate in, or going for a walk when things start to get overwhelming. Or build it into your daily schedule, such as finding a quiet place to take your lunch alone with a good book.

As Schwartz concludes:

“The enemy of sustainable productivity is not stress. Rather, it’s the absence of intermittent rest and renewal.”

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Turn Your Obstacles into Secret Weapons

By Golden Wolf

By Golden Wolf

As professional snowboarders from the flattest province in Canada (not exactly ideal for a downhill sport), Mark and Craig McMorris understand that creative problem-solving is fundamental to following your passion. In a mini-documentary presented by Red Bull, Craig explains how they made their passion a reality despite the glaring set backs:  

We grew up without that traditional path or guys that went before us and became pro snowboarders where we’re from. We didn’t get that, but what we did get was a different set of skills from wake boarding and skateboarding and also scratching tooth and nail to get on the snowboard as much as possible. I think that’s what drove our passion. So we had to be creative, very innovative and we just found different ways to do it. We are continuing in our snowboarding to find different ways of reaching that next step.

Mark and Craig needed to be creative out of necessity to acquire the skills required for snowboarding at a professional level. This necessity, however, also led them to excel due to their different approach to the sport. Often we think we need to practice one skill, and that one skill alone to make us great. However, by improving other similar talents, you improve overall and continue to be inspired. As Craig relates, “what really inspires us and gets us to where we’re at is also doing different sports outside of snowboarding.”

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How To Navigate Difficult Conversations

By João Abraúl

By João Abraúl

Sooner or later you will have a difficult conversation with your team. Research shows that 80% of managers believe that difficult conversations are a part of their job. Yet 53% said that they avoid conversations due to a lack of training.

 Communications expert Dr. Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, shares her insights on what it takes to have difficult conversations: 
Don’t tell the other person what to do.
You’re there to discover what it would take for the person to want the result you want…Once you discover what they want, you can help motivate them to move forward.
 
Put the other person first.
Enter the conversation with the purpose of helping the other person discover solutions…If they sense you’re there for yourself alone, they will not engage.
Set an emotional intention for the conversation.
If you’re angry or disappointed from the beginning, the other person will never open up. What do you want him or her to feel? Inspired? Hopeful? Use this word as an anchor during the conversation.
Show authentic respect.
Recall the person’s good work and remember that they’re doing their best with that they know how. Even if you disagree with their perspective, honor the human in front of you.
Dealing with conflict isn’t easy, but it’s costly to avoid.

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Size Doesn’t Matter

By Aled Lewis

By Aled Lewis

Everyone wants the next big idea, but creative writer Scott Berkun knows the power of small ideas. In his blog post Why Small Ideas Can Matter More Than Big Ideas, he explains you should be more concerned about the application of the idea:  

Rather than worrying about the size of an idea, which most people do, it’s more productive to think about the possible leverage an idea has. To do this requires thinking not only about the idea itself, but how it will be used. An idea can have a different amount of leverage depending on where, when and how carefully it is applied.

For example, the McDonald brothers had the simple idea of making their food process repeatable to improve efficiency. Not a big idea in itself, but when applied consistently to their now 35,000 locations, it had a huge result. Alternatively, you can take a small idea from one industry and apply it to another, such as the safety checklist pilots use and apply it to hospital surgeons. So don’t throw out your small idea; it may just need to be utilized differently. Berkun reminds us, “the basic logic we use is the bigger the idea, the bigger the value, but often that’s not true.”

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Step Away from the iPhone: The Case for a Paper Planner

By Jonas Löwgren

By Jonas Löwgren

Kat Ascharya, over on 2machines, makes a case for retiring devices and apps when it comes to organizing your schedule and to-do lists. She decided to try out a temporary switch from technological tablet to real notebook, and never changed back:

Using paper brought a surprising amount of joy back to my life. The advantages were practical: having a limited amount of space to write forced me to ruthlessly prioritize tasks. The process of checking my planner every morning created a sense of ritual and structure to my day. And the physical act of writing engaged me more — I remember things better.

A paper planner was unexpectedly fun, too. I would paste or tape interesting articles, images and quotations into my paper planner, turning it into a portable Pinterest-like inspiration board…. That fun and pleasure had a more efficient, effective impact on my life than any multi-platform functionality ever did. Planning and organizing became creative acts in and of themselves.

There are upsides abound for using modern technology to organize your time: it’s faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly (although technically, jury’s still out on that one). Technology syncs you up to your colleagues and clients—Outlook calendar invites aren’t going away any time soon. It’s more portable, requires less neatness, and needs no external implement beyond your finger. But there’s something to be said for the simplicity and artistry engendered by a pen-to-paper approach to managing your time and tasks. Many creatives Ascharya spoke with agree, citing the cognitive left-brain static that devices can create.

If it doesn’t work for your professional lifestyle to swap Google Calendar for a spiral-bound planner, consider turning to paper in other areas, like brainstorm sessions or note-taking. It’s better for your memory, leads to deeper thought, and offers less unproductive distraction.

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