When we see a beautiful product hit the market, we typically can’t help sighing and thinking, “I wish I could think of something that cool.”
But while we’re sitting around waiting for our big idea to strike, many of the people who produce this amazing work are doing things a little differently. They’re following trails of ideas and curiosities. They are open to many small, often seemingly disparate experiences (and even failures) along the way to help form their next steps. They trust in the winding path that ultimately leads to their winning idea.
This idea of learning and making changes along the way is a strategy that innovative companies have used for moving closer to success for years—but the truth is, you can use it to generate ideas for everything from products to workflows to your own career path.
To learn more, we sat down with a few Skills Pivot Coaches from AT&T—whose jobs are to use creative idea generation to help employees determine how to best pivot their skills for the future—to get advice on thinking like an innovator, getting the ideas flowing, and doing your most creative work ever.
1. Expand Your Mind
The easiest way to start is to enjoy a wide variety of books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and more. Get out of your comfort zone and investigate a topic you’ve never paid attention to before. Candice Churchwell, Skills Pivot Coach at AT&T, says, “I often get ideas from other industries or see something being done in another department that could be modified and applied in my own area—even if the industry seems totally unrelated to my own.”
Steve Jobs, for example, once audited a calligraphy class. Then, years later, he had the idea to incorporate what he learned in that class into the aesthetic of his startup, Apple. (You might have heard of it.) Twitter’s former CEO, Dick Costolo, was a professional comedian before diving into the tech world. He says that improv taught him to stay present and always listen, and he carried those lessons with him as a leader at Twitter.
Work pressures and deadlines can lend themselves to a single-minded mentality. So deliberately shake yourself out of complacency and get your imagination flowing—and then make note of what spikes your interest. Allow the new knowledge to percolate in your brain and see what connections occur.
2. Use an Idea Notebook
Where should the notes from your reading and listening go? In an idea notebook. La Shawn Johnson, another Skills Pivot Coach at AT&T, finds that people often feel that their ideas are unworthy, so they don’t share them. An idea notebook is a wonderful way to work through the worry and fear. “Take a notebook, and when something pops into your mind, write it in the notebook and close it,” Johnson says. “Don’t dwell on it, rewrite it, or anything, keep the original idea.” Then you can share your thoughts with people you trust to get initial feedback.
Why does this help? Johnson says it helps take out our emotional attachment to an idea. Our natural urge to protect the things we create (such as ideas) can form a barrier between us and innovation. Physical notebook not your thing? Pick one of the many great note-taking apps and jot things down there. The point is to capture as many ideas as possible before they slip from our brains or we dismiss them.
3. Embrace Your “Bad” Ideas, Too
You should expect to have ideas that don’t work. So don’t let mediocre ideas bother you—just move forward. As Churchwell says, “If one idea doesn’t gain momentum, try another idea.”
Entrepreneur James Clear goes even farther when he says, “In any creative endeavor you have to give yourself permission to create junk.” Instead of trying to come up with one fabulous idea a day, write down five ideas in your notebook and give them some thought. Maybe you won’t follow these threads today, but don’t discount their worth just yet. They may make more sense down the line, or ultimately lead to something even better.
And remember what writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe says: “Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”
Ready to be more innovative every day? Check out jobs at AT&T!
4. Mimic Your Heroes
You don’t have to become an idea-generating machine in a vacuum. Other people have done great things before you and can be a practical inspiration.
Those people who are doing the work you “wish you had thought of?” Learn more about their lives and their processes and then, as Churchwell suggests, ask yourself, “What behaviors do they demonstrate that you admire?” Once you’ve pinpointed their ways, copy them. Maybe it’s adopting the habit of wearing a uniform like Mark Zuckerberg (and others) have done to have more decision power to think about other things, or taking an Epsom salt bath before bed to unwind and rest up for the next day like Arianna Huffington. External habits can be a gentle reminder of the sort of work you’re hoping to do.
5. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate
There’s a picture of the creative genius in my mind: She’s sitting in a cool studio, typing furiously, coming up with one amazing idea after another. But this picture isn’t real, and that should be encouraging. It’s too much pressure to assume you can come up with every idea you need all on your own. Try getting out of your office (and your head) by asking people around you what problems they’re trying to solve and how you can contribute. Churchwell says, “Starting a simple conversation and being sociable sometimes leads to the most unexpected ideas!”
If you have ideas that you’re unsure about, it helps to get extra pairs of eyes on it. Johnson suggests building an idea support team. “These are people who you trust to be honest, open, and direct with you about your ideas but also who you can be open and honest with as well.” These aren’t necessarily people you will directly collaborate with, but close friends or colleagues who will give a truthful opinion and be kind. Ideas need a safe place to grow sometimes, and a group of people you trust is the perfect spot.
And once you have ideas, collaboration is just as important. Johnson says, “It’s not that others might have a better idea than you, but by collaborating with others you can expand that idea in ways that no one could have imagined.”
6. Remember That Ideas Are Just the Beginning
Without drive, ideas falter and fail. Samer Kurdi, chairman of the global board for Entrepreneurs' Organization, says, “Great ideas are abundant, but it’s what we decide to do with them that counts.” Making the idea creation process easier by adopting some (or all) of these habits gives you a lot of options to come up with better ideas that can lead you down the path to doing better work. But, as the innovation leaders at AT&T told me, the next step is to take an idea and run with it, even if you’re not 100% thrilled with it. Then, keep your mind open to following new pivots along the way—who knows what great thing you’ll end up creating.