Need Some New Ideas? Consult your SWAMI!

Creativity can sometimes seem like magic. But anyone can enhance their creative abilities simply by understanding the underlying principles and grasping one very important rule.

Creativity consists of two distinct phases — divergence and convergence. Divergence is the stimulation of new thinking by diversifying and exploring. Convergence refines and chooses the best possibilities from the ideas generated by divergence.

Divergence is an expansive process, with the idea being to stretch the mind in order to come up with new ideas. Convergence involves a reductive process whereby you whittle the list down to only those ideas with the most potential.

The one very important rule of creativity? Separate the two phases!

Trying to diverge and converge at the same time sucks the juice out of the creative process. It leaves you with pale, lifeless ideas that never go anywhere. And it has a negative impact on future attempts to generate new ideas. So always start with divergence first, and then schedule a different meeting for the convergence process.

To kickstart the divergence process, use the SWAMI technique:

Suppose Putting yourself in imaginary situations switches on new ways of thinking. For example, if you were from Mars, what would this problem look like? If you were six years old or three feet tall, what would the future look like to you? If you could smash all the assumptions around this issue, what would happen?

To stimulate the “suppose” process, create future stories in which you think of headlines you would like to see. Then make up a story about how those headlines came to be. For example, “Company XYZ Turns Industry Upside Down!” Then describe how you turned the industry upside down. What new value did you provide to customers? How was it delivered? How did it change the industry? When you answer these kinds of questions, you can gain great insight into what new product or service to offer.

Wander Wandering through new territory with an open mind scoops up new connections and links. For instance, you can wander through hardware or antique stores, new magazines or conferences, or even the great outdoors. It helps to use random images taken from magazines and other sources, such as photographs or postcards, to stimulate thinking about the issue you’re working on.

The less the random images relate to your problem or issue, the better. When you look at images that remind you of what you’re working on, it tends to bring up old thinking patterns. Looking at unrelated images takes the mind in new and different directions.

Associate Deliberately create new links between objects, ideas, events, people, or processes. As you link things together that are normally not connected, you begin to see new relationships and new possibilities.

Metaphorical thinking helps with this process because it uses the qualities of one object to get you thinking about another. For example, if you’re trying to create better customer service, you might think about the qualities of a rubber ball. Rubber balls are round and smooth. They bounce. They’re resilient and not easily damaged. And they’re fun to play with.

Now, examine each of these qualities to see what ideas they might stimulate around customer service. How could you make your product or service more resilient? How could your company be more fun (easier) to play (do business) with? What could you do to get customers who have left to bounce back to doing business with you?

Morph This involves changing various aspects of a situation by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Use the technique of brainwriting to drive the process of building on other ideas. Start by creating a worksheet with six rows and three columns of empty boxes. Have each person write three ideas in one row of boxes, then pass their worksheet on to the next person. The idea is to build on the ideas of others or use them to stimulate new ideas. Repeat the exercise until all sheets are filled.

Inquire Questions create openings. Asking great questions can unravel a mystery like a kitten batting a ball of twine. Start by asking the most powerful question for opening up new possibilities: What if…?

For example: What if our customers ran our business…? What if we’re looking at it the wrong way…? What if we saw this in a way that nobody has seen before…? Have everyone think of 10 ways to complete the question. Then compare notes.

Once you’ve come up with several good ideas for addressing your problem or challenge, schedule a separate time to use the convergent thinking phase. Next week, I’ll share some ideas for managing that process of turning good ideas into practical application.

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