For years, I’ve been studying the winning habits and personal best practices of leading innovators seeking the secrets of their success. I have had the good fortune to interview some of the greats. Inventors like Dean Kamen; entrepreneurs like Gore-Tex founder Bill Gore; possibility thinkers like Robert Schuller; master teachers like Marva Collins; astronauts like Edgar Mitchell; polio vaccine discoverer Jonas Salk, and many more.
I never tire of discovering their methods, how they solve problems. Where do their ideas come from? What do they do to rejuvenate? How do they encourage the ideas of others? And how do they handle resistance to their ideas?
Neal Gabler’s masterful biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, contains many such insights. It reveals the methods that made the man. In one chapter, he catches Walt wandering around the construction site of what would become Disneyland with a notepad in his hand. Walt is busily observing, rubbing his chin. He’s questioning, imagining, comparing his vision with what is becoming reality, walking in the future guest’s shoes to imagine ideas that would maximize that moment. Do this, try that, move this pepper tree over in front of Frontierland, it blocks the guest’s view as they round the corner, and a thousand other details. This is how Disney approached everything he did, and how he inspired others to go beyond what they thought was their best.
Whether we’re designing an amusement park, writing a speech, redoing the landscape, or simply trying to make things more convenient, it’s important to realize that ideas fuel our futures and families and careers, and we can get better at creating them. Consider these six methods to help you excel:
- Pay attention to ideas. Capture ideas when they occur.
Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna once shared with me his unique process for capturing ideas. Whether attending a board meeting, talking shop with colleagues, or relaxing in his home office, he kept a moleskin idea notebook handy and jots down ideas as they occur. “You’re sitting there in that meeting, and something is said that relates to something else you’re thinking in some other area, and then your mind starts thinking about that. I’m always in this mode of looking for a new idea; or a better way of doing things.” Innovators the world over operate like this. They pounce on ideas the moment they occur. Action step: Develop the habit of writing down ideas in real time no matter where you are. Catch yourself thinking the thought: I’ll write that idea down later. You won’t.
- Analyze your “things to do” list for insights into your current direction.
Your “things to do” list is really an “idea list,” if you stop to think about it. With all the distractions of modern life, such lists are essential first steps on the road to coming up – and implementing — bigger and more game changing ideas. Start by analyzing your current list and what it reveals about the types of ideas you’re preoccupied with just now.
All of us go thru periods where execution is the overwhelming order of the day. But if all the ideas on your list are tactical– prep for the zoom call, pick up the dry cleaning, pay the bills, do your taxes, etc., — they are not enough to catapult you into achieving outsize personal and professional results. Action step: review your priorities, and how they fit with respect to your larger goals and objectives. Are you on track? Where do you need additional ideas?
- Identify the BHAGs in your personal and professional life.
BHAGs – big, hairy, audacious goals – are like destinations, driving you forward and helping inspire you to think big. If you haven’t started a BHAG list yet, there may never be a better time than now to tune in to your larger goals, your “bucket list,” to where you want to be one year, three years, and at the end of your natural life. Action step: start paying closer attention to all your ideas, regardless of size or category. Carve out time regularly to inspect, prioritize, sort, eliminate and retool your idea productivity.
- Identify when and where your best time for working with your ideas.
I once asked leadership expert Dr. Peter Chee, with whom I toured seven Asian capitals leading Driving Growth Through Innovation all-day seminars, where he got most of his ideas. He did not have to think for long. “When I’m in a plane at 35,000 feet,” he gushed excitedly. Chee never tires of looking out at cloud formations, he’s convinced that, for him, they ignite his idea factory.
I once informally surveyed almost everybody I came in contact with over a 12-month period about their personal best time to work with and prioritize their ideas. The survey revealed that fifteen to twenty percent of executives and managers hatch ideas in the middle of the night. Taking a shower or driving was another frequent idea-popper.
Action step: Identify when and where you get ideas. Plan for it. If there’s a particular spot in your home or office that gets your creative juices flowing —be it the kitchen table or the bathtub or an obscure conference room– set aside time to sit quietly in that space, alone and free of noise and distraction, to work thru your ideas.
- Work with your ideas. Sift and sort and experiment and kill your ideas.
Wayne Silby, founder of The Calvert Group, and originator of the financial services industry’s first social investment fund, once told me: “I spend a lot of my time making sure people recognize that I come up with a lot of ideas, that some of them are good. And most of them are bad. What we have to do together as a management team is to sort out the good ones from the bad.”
Creative CEOs like Silby know that to have a good idea, you need lots of them. In helping companies set up “idea management” systems, we find that it takes 80 to 100 ideas to discover a good one – that is, one that you want to pursue. And even then, running the idea thru an organized process of “go/no-go” decision stage-gates is essential. Action step: Work with your ideas the way a potter works with clay. Shape them, think through them, invite more of them. And experiment constantly.
- Use the “plussing” method to find a better way.
Walt Disney coined the term “plussing” to describe the mental process of making an idea even better. By encouraging his team of imagineers to use his technique, Disney set new standards on quality and innovation in everything he undertook.
Materials science company W.L. Gore and Associates is consistently rated one of the most innovative companies in the world. Founder Bill Gore once described to me his favorite method of plussing.
“I walk through one of our plants and I see a piece of equipment that’s being built,” Gore explained. “I inquire about how it’s designed. And I scratch my head and say, ‘You know, it would be so much easier, so much better if it could be done this way instead of that way. Why don’t we do it that way?’” Gore’s manner of “managing by walking around” and disrupting with questions might seem a bit heavy-handed. But his people respected him because he got right to the point: there’s usually a better way if we stop and think about it. Ego has no place in the process.
Action summary. The mind is a great place for hatching ideas. But it’s a lousy place for trying to store them. The moment you get serious about recording and working with your ideas is the moment you’ll start achieving great things in your life. Everybody has ideas. But only a few know how to keep their idea factories fortified to churn out ideas abundantly on a consistent basis, when and where needed to move things forward.