In working with hundreds of CEOs, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators, and creative professionals over the years, I’ve discovered a single process that works best for generating new ideas for products, services, or companies. No, it’s not plastering a wall with Post-It notes. Nor is it a general brainstorming session, where every crazy idea is pitched in hopes that it will inspire some genius insight.
Think like a craftsperson
Instead, I encourage idea generators to think in terms of craft, not art. What’s the distinction? An artist’s goal is personal expression, in whatever way that takes shape based on their talents and imagination. In contrast, a craftsperson also brings imagination and talent, but places an equal emphasis on function and utility. While the art vs. craft debate has raged for centuries (and I am not here to resolve it today), the expanded focus on utility brings great value for idea generators.
For example, the stoneware bowl must balance design with sturdiness; too heavy and it’s cumbersome to lift, yet it must be sturdy enough to withstand daily use. The handcrafted chair needs to provide aesthetic design as well as comfort and support. The woven blanket showcases beautiful pattern and texture and also is expertly crafted for warmth and durability.
Ask Who before What
Expanding your focus from your new product, service, or company to users brings clarity to your imagining. It requires you to define your intended audience before you consider what to create. It also clarifies your thinking, an approach Amazon uses relentlessly in its famous 6-page memo alternative to meetings (outlined in Jeff Bezos’ recent letter to shareholders).
By asking “Who?” first, you focus primarily on the user, customer, or client — not the object. That functional intent opens up much more productive avenues of idea generation. Profiling an ideal user who will benefit from your new idea enables you to establish parameters, focus your thinking, and avoid fruitless explorations.
The next time you’re trying to develop new ideas, abandon the question: What new product, service, or company should we develop? Instead, ask: Who’s the customer we want to serve?, followed by “What are they trying to do? and “How can we help them best?” You’ll find your idea generation sessions will shift and become much more fruitful.
Your challenge for this week: Review how much of your work is craft-like in nature, blending creative spark with functionality. How can you increase both elements?