If you read this blog, then you know that one of the things I do is teach people how to brainstorm. I pride myself on not only giving people permission to suspend their judgement and generate 100s of wild ideas, but on giving them assessment tools for these ideas. After a brainstorm, I ask folks to plot their ideas on a grid with “safe ideas” and “wild ideas” at the ends of one axis and “easy to implement” and “hard to implement” at the ends of the other. Now, since I’m usually working with people who have to build their ideas, I ask them to choose an idea in the “wild and easy” quadrant. This is so they can move forward with a wild, creative idea that is easy to build and test a minimum viable product (mvp).
But this semester I am teaching Brand Design. The project for the semester is for students to make a brand book for a company that they imagine. So we started the project by brainstorming on what they would like their companies to be. As usual, after their brainstorms I asked them to plot their ideas on the grid I describe above. But when it came time to hone in on an idea, I realized that they don’t have to build the companies that they are dreaming up, so they don’t have to consider how difficult it is to implement their ideas. I realized that they can and should choose an idea from the wild and hard to implement quadrant. Why not?
This insight immediately reminded me of the work of Syd Mead, pictured above. Mead created concept work for the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and later did work for the films Blade Runner and Tron. Mead never had to implement the concepts he came up with. He was paid, and paid handsomely, to dream.
A few years back Roger Martin, then dean of the Rotman School of Management, wrote a piece called “Reality is the Enemy of Innovation.” In it he laments the lost art of abductive reasoning, which calls for constant adjustments to your conclusions after each iteration, like Dr. House does when exploring treatments to complex medical conditions. This form of reasoning allows us to ask the question “What might be?” We’ve replaced abductive reasoning with more one-dimensional methods like inductive and deductive reasoning. These methods are valuable, for sure. But do they encourage us to explore our dreams?
Another related piece popped up in my news feed this morning titled, “Is There a Creativity Deficit in Science?” It points out the irony that the researchers who have the most predictable ideas get funded but that what we need for innovation is to fund researchers who have unpredictable ideas. That starving artist thing ain’t no joke. Artists are able to do what they do because they distance themselves from market constraints.
Which makes me wonder, when we shoot down an idea because there’s not an obvious market for it, are we robbing ourselves of those ideas? When we kill dreams, are we killing the seeds of potential solutions to the complex problems we face? And if that’s what we’re doing, how do we make it stop?