#450  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 2          February 2000

How to Become an "Idea Person"
by Don Gabor

Mr. Gabor is an interpersonal communication skills trainer and the author of the book and audiotape, How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends (Simon & Schuster/Fireside, New York, 1983; revised edition, 2000). This article is adapted from Big Things Happen When You Do the Little Things Right (Prima, Rocklin, CA, 1997).  For a free creativity tip sheet, visit www.dongabor.com or call 800-423-4203.

Nearly everyone living in America has munched on Cracker Jacks, the candy-coated popcorn and peanut snack, but did you ever wonder how it got to be so popular? It wasn't the only product of this kind on the market, in fact, far from it. By the early 1900s, there were more than one hundred brands of similar tasting candy, including Yellow Kid, Honey Corn, Little Buster, and Razzle Dazzle, just to name a few. Yet, after nearly 100 years, only Cracker Jacks still satisfies millions of sweet tooths around the country while the other brands have long disappeared. Why?
Did Cracker Jacks outlast the other brands of candy-coated popcorn and peanuts because it tasted better? No. Cracker Jacks won the hearts of snack-food lovers because its inventor came up with an innovative marketing idea: he included a small prize in each box. The success story of Cracker Jacks, like so many other success stories, hinged on a stroke of creativity that set this product apart from its competition.

Tap Into Your Creativity to Get Faster Results

Do you wish that you could be more innovative, but you always seem to get stuck doing things in the old way? During a department meeting, when your boss asks for suggestions on how to deal with problems, do you wish you could come up with some solutions? Would you like to find more creative approaches to getting over obstacles and achieving your goals?  You probably know someone who comes up with one great idea after another, but did you ever wonder how he or she does it?  Many creative problem-solvers use brainstorming to stimulate their imagination and generate ideas. Now you can learn how to expand your creative skills and become an "idea person," too. When you use your imagination, you'll reach your goal sooner and have more fun in the process.

Brainstorming: Generating Ideas and Solutions

Webster's Dictionary defines brainstorming as a problem-solving technique that sparks a spontaneous generation of ideas. The purpose of brainstorming is to produce as many solutions, ideas, or outcomes as possible without stopping to evaluate their feasibility or value. Critiquing the ideas occurs later. Brainstorming works though the power of association by offering ideas around a particular subject or problem. The hope is that one idea leads to another, and to another, and so on. Whether you are brainstorming by yourself or with others, follow these five techniques to generate new ideas.

Focus on One Clearly Defined Idea, Problem, or Goal
If you have not done it already, start by defining the one problem upon which you will focus your brainstorming. Brainstorming is most effective when you come up with many possible solutions to overcome one specific obstacle instead of thinking up many unrelated ideas. For example, if you want to change careers, then the focus of your brainstorming could be "find new job."

Build on Previous Ideas
Another brainstorming technique is to identify ideas or strategies that have worked for you in the past and then come up with ways to make improvements. You don't need to reinvent the wheel to make brainstorming pay off; just do what you do now, only better and more efficiently. For example, let's say a friend-of-a-friend told you about the job that you now hold. To build on this idea, you can network at a local Chamber of Commerce or association meeting to expand your contacts and employment possibilities.

Generate a Large Number of Ideas
Successful brainstorming usually generates a large number of ideas, suggestions and possibilities. The more ideas that the brainstorming session produces, the better. You'll have an opportunity to sort out the ideas later. What you don't want to do is to exclude an idea from the
brainstorming session, no matter how frivolous it may seem at the time. The reason for this rule is that people often come up with excellent ideas as joke. Don't throw these potential gems away.

In the early 1930s, Charles B. Darrow was an unemployed engineer living in Germantown, Pennsylvania. To pass the time and take his mind off his financial problems, Darrow devised an intricate real estate board game played with dice, "deeds," "hotels," and "houses." Daily newspaper accounts of wheeler-dealers winning and losing fortunes in real estate investments spawned the original idea and fed his imagination for the game's components. Then Darrow's visit to the seaside resort, Atlantic City, New Jersey generated dozens more of ideas for the game, including the names of expensive properties such as "Boardwalk," "Park Place," and "Marvin Gardens." One day, as Darrow and a few other unemployed friends passed another afternoon playing his new game, one fellow joked that he ought to sell it to the game company, Parker Brothers. The rest, as they say, is history. By 1935, Charles Darrow's new board game, "Monopoly," was selling twenty thousand sets a week, and he was on his way to being a millionaire.

Let One Idea Lead to Another
Brainstorming is effective because we make mental associations, or connections, with the words or ideas we think and hear. Words or ideas make us think of more words and ideas. These new thoughts, in turn, lead to another series of words and ideas. If you focus the brainstorming, you can connect these new words and ideas into a defined concept, or even solutions to a problem. Brainstorming is particularly effective when others provide different views, ideas, and solutions around one problem. The focus on this brainstorming technique is to generate the greatest number of ideas possible without judging their viability or practicality. The evaluation and ordering of the ideas come later.

Record All Your Ideas
Remember the last time you had a great idea in the middle of the night or while you were jogging, but you neglected to write it down. That great idea is probably lost forever, or at least until you happen to think of it again. Don't let those great ideas, or even little ideas, get away
from you. Be sure to write down or tape record your ideas as they pop into of your head. Brainstorming can generate many useful ideas, but if you don't capture them, they will drift away like smoke in the wind.

Brainstorming No-no's
Remember that the purpose of brainstorming is to generate ideas, so avoid these other idea-squashers. Do not evaluate or pass judgment on the ideas as you think of them. Do not immediately reject any ideas even if they have obvious flaws. Do not ignore any ideas, no matter how impractical or impossible they may seem at the time you think of them.

If you are brainstorming with other people, nothing can ruin a creative session faster than an overly competitive atmosphere, a crass comment, or tactless remark. Also, avoid these idea-killing phrases during a group brainstorming session:
"That'll never work."
"We tried that idea before. It didn't work then and it won't work now."
"This idea is crazy."
"It's already been done."
"I don't think so."
"It'll be more trouble than it's worth."
"Don't be ridiculous."

Measuring the Value of an Idea

When it comes to brainstorming, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that brainstorming generates lots of ideas and possible solutions to problems. The bad news is that not all the ideas are useful or applicable to your specific goal. Like a gardener who culls weak seedlings from a flowerbed, you too must sift through your ideas and focus on the ones with the most potential.  Not all ideas are created equal; some are going to help you achieve your goals more than others. The question is, how do you know which ideas to use now, which ones to save for later, and which ones to discard?  Before you rush to judgment, give yourself time to consider how the idea or option will affect your overall plan and goal. Allowing some time to pass gives you an added perspective on your idea. I use the following two criteria to measure the value of the ideas and solutions after a successful brainstorming session.

Will this Idea Help Me Achieve My Midterm and Long Term Goals?
Not all the ideas you generate--even if they are good ones--will help you achieve your defined goal. To help determine if an idea is worthwhile pursuing, ask yourself:
Does this idea fit into my "big picture" plans or is it a diversion?
Does this idea defuse or sharpen my focus on my midterm and long term goals?
Do I have the skills and resources to make this idea workable?
How easy is it to put this idea into practice?
Will this idea save me time and/or money?
Is this idea safe?
Will this idea help eliminate wasted effort and resources?
Is this idea consistent with my value system?

Is Now the Right Time to Put this Idea into Action?
Poor timing probably accounts for more failures of ideas than just about anything else. You might have a good idea, but the timing may be wrong. To help you decide if your idea is timely or not, ask yourself:
How will I benefit from this idea if I act now?
How will acting on this idea affect the rest of my plan?
What opportunities may present themselves if I act on this idea now?
What are the pros and cons of acting on this idea now?
Will this idea be easier or more difficult to act upon if I wait?
How might external forces such as the weather, business climate, or availability of materials impact the success of this idea?
Is my timing critical to the success of this idea?

Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

It's not always easy to differentiate the good idea from the clunker -- so you will need to test your idea to learn if it will pay off for you. Once you and your team decide that an idea has potential value, then you'll be known as an "idea person."

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