Office Hacks: 3 Steps to Better Brainstorming
Written by David Ng
They’re all mocking you, aren’t they? The blank notepad, the pristinely clean whiteboard and even the blinking cursor of the empty Word document. They know you’re wracking your brain for the solution to the problem you’re working on, and they’re taking great delight in your struggles to find that elusive great idea. You feel defeated. Your brainstorming has been downgraded to a Category 1 brain fart that barely ruffles the curtains. Everything you come up with just plain stinks. But don’t give up! Here are some ideas from some of the most successful and creative thinkers to get you out of your idea rut.
Elon Musk. His brainstorms definitely make it rain—money.
Elon Musk: “First Principles” Method
Elon Musk—founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity—takes the approach of identifying fundamental truths (or first principles) of an issue and reasoning up from there, rather than comparing current issues to past issues:
I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.
Many innovations were sparked from this approach. Take the smartphone for example. It didn’t come about because people focused on improving upon the flip phone. It came about because someone looked at the fundamental principle of mobile communication and what it was trying to accomplish. If it worked for the billionaire and countless innovators, it could work for you. Watch Kevin Rose’s interview with Elon Musk where he talks about the First Principles method below. [embedded content]
Google: 20% Time
The powerhouse company is famous for institutionalizing a 20% rule that encourages Google engineers to spend up to 20% of their time working on any other Google project. (Fun fact: Google’s practice was inspired by 3M’s 15% time, which led to the invention of Post-It® Notes, among other things.) Some of their best and most innovative products were the result of the rule, including Gmail, AdSense, Google Glass and their self-driving cars. How can you apply Google’s philosophy without asking your boss for a day off every week? Talk with coworkers from other departments about the problem you’re trying to solve; perhaps all you need is an approach to the problem for a different angle. Or maybe you just need to step back from the problem and go do something completely different. And it doesn’t even have to be work related. Often times, people come up with creative solutions because they’re able to apply unrelated life experiences to a problem they’re trying to solve.
“Write drunk, edit sober.”
This line is frequently (and incorrectly) attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but it does encourage dropping your inhibitions and not limiting what comes out of your head. Do you have a good idea? Bad idea? It doesn’t matter; just add it to the list. What does matter is that you keep the ideas flooding out. Deciding what’s good or not comes after. Take Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update sketch. It usually only takes 15-minutes to go through 20 jokes or so, but of those 20 that make the final cut, over 800 jokes are pitched for that week’s segment. And like all skills, brainstorming takes practice. The more you do it, the more likely you’re turn your brainstorm sessions into brain maelstroms.
David Ng is a writer at Laserfiche.