That nagging nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach just exploded into full blown anxiety. The important deliverable your boss wants? It’s due in “five minutes.” The paper that counts for half of your final grade? It should’ve been done yesterday.
But no need to fear, constraints drive creativity and you can unlock your imagination and drive solutions by THINKING DIFFERENTLY. Here are the seven steps to conquer creativity in a pinch and meet your next deadline:
1. Ditch Traditional Brainstorming and Give “Gamestorming” a Try
Traditional brainstorming is broken in that it stimulates ‘groupthink’” and adds unneeded pressure. To make matters worse, ideas offered by the loudest people drown out the great ideas from those who aren’t as extroverted.
Gamestorming incorporates co-creation in ways that stimulate thinking and states of play. It requires breaking into two ‘zones of thinking’, the divergent zone, which is all about quantity, and the convergent zone, which is where choices are filtered down.
Once when faced with a crazy deadline and a completely booked-up team, I had to brainstorm campaign ideas for an emerging startup. Rather than wait for the clock to run out, I made a fun game of it I call the “50/50 experiment”. I challenged myself to come up with 50 ideas in 50 minutes. Don’t have 50 minutes? Aim for 20 ideas in 20 minutes or even 10 in 10. Shoot for quantity over quality, you can separate the wheat from the chaff when you converge afterwards.
Nothing jump starts creativity like pressure. Combine the stress of a fast approaching deadline with the adrenaline of a gamestorm – you’ll be hooked.
2. Frame and then Reframe the Problem
Einstein famously said, ”If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Hopefully your life doesn’t depend on meeting your next deadline, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take cues from Albert. (I hear he was a relatively smart guy.)
Stanford Professor Tina Seelig demonstrates the power of reframing by asking an identical question in two different ways: “What is the sum of 5 plus 5? What two numbers add up to 10?” The first question has a single definite response, while the second can be answered in many ways.
It’s easy to get lost in the details when the pressure is on. Ask yourself: “Why?” “What If?” “Why not?”
If you are trying to make a chair more comfortable, does the problem lie with the chair or the way the person is sitting in it?
Think about how to reframe the problem at hand and get back to the root of what you are up against. An obvious solution may be waiting right in front of you. By constantly reframing the question and the problem, you can unlock new, productive ways of thinking.
3. Dig Deep. Think “Sideways”
Even when up against a ticking clock, immerse yourself in the task to boost creativity.
In typical education systems, we’re taught from an early age to use logical, goal-centric approaches to thinking. This makes us want to jump to ‘solutions’. However, this can also stand in the way of creativity.
Don’t be another person that uses Google to arrive at the most obvious idea and proceeds to try to pass it off as their own. To truly arrive at your own thoughts, use what psychologists call “lateral thinking”, or what I like to refer to as “thinking sideways”.
Founder of Contently Shane Snow wrote a fantastic book called Smartcuts that shows the power of lateral thinking.
I like to approach creative projects like a crime TV show drama by mapping out my work in a ‘war room’. I find going analog is a much more flexible way of working and stimulates teamwork by creating physical spaces to display information in plain sight.
This saturation period is a critical part of the creative problem solving process. Don’t be afraid to interview people and ask questions to really dig deep. If you are designing the vending machine of the future, call vending machine repair companies and ask them what breaks often and why. Starting with ‘why’ helps you to break out of the status quo.
4. Let it Soak
Do the hands on the clock feel like they are moving faster and faster, barreling you through time closer and closer to missing your deadline?
Why don’t you go have a snack? Not hungry? Take a shower then.
It’s time to let the work you have done in the saturation period marinate. Step away from work for a couple minutes and refresh your mind. You may not still be consciously working on the problem, but your mind will continue to try to process and make sense of it.
In a scene from TV’s Mad Men, a partner from Don Draper’s agency remarks to him, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”
I don’t suggest you adapt all of Draper’s work habits, but creatives have always understood the importance of taking time aside to let your thoughts develop. The minute you stop actively thinking about how to solve a problem is usually when a solution presents itself.
5. Check your Surroundings
Still struggling to get your work done?
Consider your surroundings. Our brains are constantly absorbing the stimuli around us and our environment can have a profound effect on our creativity, or lack thereof.
Steve Jobs found long walks around Palo Alto to be an invaluable way to problem solve and contemplate the products that would shape technology forever. Determine the environmental inputs that drive your desired outputs. The right people, places, and music (or lack of) can make all the difference.
6. Strike While The Iron is Hot
Once the ideas finally start flowing, keep working and capture them however possible: momentum is a fire you must never stop fueling. Thanks to a sudden ‘ah-ha’ moment, the blocked lows of creative problem solving can give way to an exhilarating rush of ideas that will make your deadline attainable.
7. Be Vulnerable
Creative problem solving dies without the courage to fail your way to each and every success. Brainstorm. Observe. Repeat.
Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s great words about the power of vulnerability:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
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