During the past 25 years, we have facilitated more than 1,000 brainstorming sessions for a wide variety of heavy hitting organizations -- everyone from MTV to GE to government think thanks. We’ve worked with left-brained people, right-brained people, and reptilian-brained people.
As you might imagine, we've developed quite a few techniques to get people out of their heads and into a more robust realm of possibility. But the biggest breakthroughs we’ve seen have had less to do with our methods than they did with spontaneous occurrences.
Like the time a Porcelain Hotel Dog became the catalyst for a game changing product idea.
Here's the deal:
We were leading a daylong ideation session for a large telecommunications company when it was time for lunch. Everyone left the room, visions of tuna wraps in their head, when we noticed a peculiar looking porcelain dog, next to a plastic fern, in the corner of the room -- the kind of kitschy piece of Americana you'd walk by at a yard sale, mumbling under your breath that this was absolutely the last time you'd ever attend a yard sale.
Somehow, we found myself drawn to the dog and, being in a particularly playful mood, picked it up and placed it on a folding chair in the middle of the room.
Tickled by its absolute uselessness and lack of beauty, we put a hat on it's weird, little head, and went about our business of getting ready for the afternoon session.
Five minutes later, the head of HR walks into the room, takes off his power tie, and places it, with a chuckle, around the dog's neck.
Then an IT guy enters, removes his "Hello My Name Is" badge and sticks it on the dog's chest. A well-dressed marketing woman removes her necklace and wraps it around the dog's waist.
There, in the middle of the room, unleashed, unbarking, but no longer unloved, sits the perfect brainstorm session mascot -- a 3D embodiment of our collective mind at that moment in time.
The rest of the participants return soon enough and gather around the porcelain dog as if it was the Holy Grail. A Blackberry gets taped to his back, a scarf gets wrapped around his neck. Someone puts a bandaid over his mouth.
Something is happening that has absolutely nothing to do with our agenda for the day. A curious kind of creativity portal is opening up right before our eyes.
"OK!" we blurt, as soon as the last person returns from lunch. "What cool, new product ideas come to mind when you look at good ole' Fido here?"
Ideas start flooding the room. Big ideas. Bold ideas. Totally ridiculous ideas.
In just a few minutes, it is clear that a big idea is emerging -- an idea for a niche telecommunications market no one in this room has ever considered before -- animals -- more specifically, dogs who live with blind or disabled people -- the kind of dogs who could easily be trained to push a large red button on a one-button phone any time their Master was unable to -- what soon became known to all of us in that room, as the Paw Phone.
Pet idea conceived, we spend the next ten minutes fleshing it out, adding it to the list of the other big ideas to be presented at the end of the day to an independent focus group.
The funny thing? Of the ten ideas we pitched to the focus group that day, the Paw Phone was the third highest rated. Woof woof.
Good ideas can come from anyone at any time and any place. While it is impossible to predict precisely when and where the good ideas will manifest, it is possible to predict the conditions that will make it more likely for the good ideas to make their appearance.
In the Paw Phone session, one of these conditions was the spirit of playfulness and spontaneity that manifested itself so gloriously during the lunch break.
At that time, we simply followed our hunch that the porcelain dog, was, somehow, part of the creative process. We didn't know how things would unfold. We could only trust our instincts and past experience that, often, seemingly random catalysts are the DNA for breakthrough. That, and the fact, that when we manage to enter the state of not trying we often get the best results.
Carl Jung understood this phenomenon: "The creation of something new," he said, "is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves."
Play! The creative mind plays with the object it loves! Yes!
And yet, in the corporate world, playfulness is often demonized, marginalized, and ignored -- branded "unprofessional" -- as if it was a symptom of the worst kind of anti-business slacker mentality.
Indeed, if you find yourself laughing on the job, many of the people around you will think you aren't taking your job seriously. No wonder 62% of all Americans characterize themselves as being dissatisfied with work.
The roots of this weirdness can be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
What happened to Adam when he took a bite of the forbidden fruit? He was condemned, for life, to earning his living by "the sweat of his brow". The free lunch was over. Adam's spontaneity doomed him to a life of heavy lifting and we are the ones who have gotten the hernia.
It's time to shed the notion that work always has to be so serious -- that grunting and groaning is the preferred response and that laughter, in the workplace, means you're not working. Baloney. Untrue. Bogus. Cro-magnon. Insane.
This just in: Life is supposed to be fun. And since work is a part of life, it too needs to be fun -- especially when you find yourself in the middle of a brainstorming session, trying to originate the kind of ideas that will make a difference in the world.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, how serious is your workplace? The brainstorming sessions you attend?. And if it's 7 or more, what can you do to lighten things up?
BONUS QUESTION: What laughable idea of yours may have more merit in it if you just dig a little deeper into the essence of what that idea is really all about?