Have you ever felt the sheer terror of a stark white document? Have you raged at your inability to simply tap your keyboard and put down just one semi-original thought? Yes, you have. Everybody has, especially in fast-paced creative fields where the biggest roadblock is often all the great ideas that have come before.
“People say there are maybe five or six truly original plots in this world,” says Carlo Cavallone, executive creative director at ad agency 72andSunny Amsterdam. “The same applies to everything. If you stop and think about that, you’ll panic.”
Every browser tab you open, every social feed you check brings evidence of just how clever the world has become, leaving you stranded at your laptop. You know you have not actually tried everything–yet you feel it deep in your soul. So how do you fix the feeling and move forward with another great idea?
To find out, we interviewed people in fields with rapid idea turnover rates for suggestions on what they do when everything seems done already. Here’s what they came up with.
Pull A Terry Gross And Interview Your Clients
Every so often, Compendium, an Indianapolis software firm that helps companies produce and market original brand content, tosses out its organizational chart and day-to-day duties. Inspired by the book The Lean Startup and events like Startup Weekend, Frank Dale, CEO of Compendium, gives teams of employees about five minutes to pitch a product feature or upgrade on the morning of “Innovation Day,” and the rest of that day to prototype and demonstrate. Compendium has implemented new widgets, progress bars for projects, and new content calendars from Innovation Day projects.
The winning projects almost always come from teams that have interviewed current clients about their proposal. Talking up customers for advice seems like the least savvy move anyone could make, but it’s usually more of a refinement process than a cold call.
“Usually, part of your initial idea is right,” Dale said. “But you get out there, you start talking to customers, and you’ll hear, ‘I like what you’re saying, but maybe just a bit different.’ Once you’ve had three or four conversations like that, you’re probably on the right track.”
Customers are told of the possibility of calls before Innovation Days, but Dale said the clients “love it.” It humanizes Compendium’s staff, it shows a creative drive, it gives customers a chance to add features they need early on, and, as Dale said, “Everybody likes being interviewed.”
More to the point, springing young ideas on an audience can ease uncertainty–they either get it or they don’t, and you’ll be able to tell. And as you probably know, but easily forget, talking out your idea to someone else often works it out in your own mind.
Trust That Quantity Can Get You To Quality
Author and venture capitalist Josh Linkner has many strategies to suggest for breaking past uncertainty in your ideas. You can force yourself to answer questions: “Why,” “What if,” and “Why not?” (as in, “Why not make a car that’s accident-resistant, but also gets great mileage?”) You can “role-storm”–that is, brainstorm in the mental guise of a character, like Steve Jobs, say, or Charlie Sheen. Or, if you’re not feeling particularly insightful or dramatic, you can try smashing out as many ideas as you can around a topic, then culling the winners. And guess what? Those are generally found at the end of the process (no one said this would be easy).
“The first 20 or so are the obvious answers,” Linkner says, recalling an exercise from one of his college advertising classes to generate 200 ad headlines. “That’s where most people would stop, because when you hit something that’s just competent, you generally stop. But those are generally not the most creative.” More than likely, people burn through the “done before” ideas in the first 100.
“When we came back … and (everybody) had to show their best ideas, none of the best ideas were number 14, or seven. They were 178, or 193. Sometimes, the sheer act of forcing yourself to drive quantity, with no judgment, can drive quality.”
Work Backwards From A Visual Scenario (Just Like Amazon Does)
It’s a lot easier to daydream about a great workplace moment, or what’s being said at the launch party, than to imagine the next thing you should do. Use that to your advantage.
Brian Tierney built Tierney Communications into a $300-million-plus agency, in part, by putting James Earl Jones into the voice-over studio for Verizon. After selling Tierney Communications in 2003, he published The Philadelphia Inquirer for a (tumultuous) period, and then founded Brian Communications in 2010, staying active in the advertising and public relations fields for nearly 40 years. But at one point, his 200-person Tierney firm was vying for Deloitte Consulting’s account. Tierney was the smallest firm in the running, and also the only one based outside of New York City.
Research, originality, and some interviewing and polling of friends (similar to Dale’s advice) paid off, but Tierney said the overarching strategy was to visualize a very specific scenario: A client, at a party, stopped by and asked a friend why they made the surprising pick of Tierney for their ad firm. In Tierney’s head, that executive hit the first point hard: The firm was very sophisticated, plugged-in, and had global insight, despite its non-Gotham nature. That guided all of Tierney Communications’ work on Deloitte.
“So we worked through our contacts to present our creatives to the CEOs of some of the largest companies in the world,” Tierney says. “We mailed them packets, told them to wait until we called to open them … When we pitched (Deloitte), we could put their names on the wall … It made it easier for them to take that leap.”
That’s also how many projects at Amazon are planned, according to project leader Ian McAllister. Product managers start with a draft of an internal press release, one with quotes, setup details, and the usual promotional prose. Then they get to work creating the thing that reads so good in the release.
Think Emotionally And Avoid The Competition
Cavallone, of 72andSunny Amsterdam (one of Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2012), needs some distance between himself and his field to generate and support great, original ideas. He tries to emulate the lines one sees from directors and screenwriters in interviews: They don’t go to the movies, they don’t read others’ screenplays unless they have to. “That’s the most paralyzing thing, thinking that everybody else is doing such smart stuff,” Cavallone says.
Cavallone does see the occasional friends’ work on Facebook, or reference campaigns on YouTube, but he tries hard to avoid it. He advises younger creatives struggling with a concept to stop thinking about themes and specifics.
“Think about what you love to do, and what kind of idea you would get excited about,” Cavallone said. “Try to think emotionally about this thing. Will it excite you? Put it on a piece of paper, that’s a good start. Now, what’s your emotional reaction to that thing on paper?”
“When you honestly do that, it’s really helpful. Try to please yourself first. Start from there.”
[Image: Fer Gregory via Shutterstock]