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Employer Brand Strategy Sprint Series


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This New Thinking Method will Help you Solve Any Problem


Lois Payne Lois Payne



Employer Branding

Got a blocker with your EB project that you can’t seem to get around? There might be a better way to come up with solutions…

Chris Thomason is a veteran entrepreneur, consultant, customer experience expert and author of Freaky Thinking: Thinking that delivers a dazzling difference.

“Where do you get your best thinking?” he asks me. 

I consider it briefly, and say, “Hm, probably the shower.”

“Yeah, that’s a common one,” he says. “I've asked this question to a lot of people and the number of times I hear, “I get my best ideas at work” is almost zero.”

But why is that the case? Why are we not at our most creative when we’re typing at our desks? When we’re being paid to be creative.

“Well, the problem is that the workplace is not conducive,” Thomason says. “It's not your best time. Normally, when you do your best thinking, you're out walking the dog, driving, you're often on your own, and you're free with your thoughts. But you're not just sat there with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, you're doing an activity of some kind. And the research has shown that actually, when you're doing an undemanding activity, that's when you're at your most creative.”

The Fallacy of Brainstorming

Brainstorming has been a popular method for generating ideas for decades. It’s the default. Think about the way we see creativity depicted in the movies: loud men in suits throwing around ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas in a boardroom until the normally uncompromising CEO says, “Daniels, you son of a gun, you’ve saved the company,” – or whatever.

And yet, Chris Thomason thinks that for generating the very best ideas (the ones you need to solve important problems and propel the business forwards) brainstorming is nonsense.

“In a brainstorming session,” he explains, “there is always someone talking away and you're supposed to be paying attention. So, it's not conducive to your own personal thinking.

“Now, I'm not saying that the whole creative process should be done alone, but when you want that genesis of a thought, when you want those sparks of creativity flying, that is best done on your own. You capture those ideas and then share them with other people.”

American advertising executive, Alex Faickney Osborn, introduced the world to the concept of brainstorming in 1953 and it caught on. But that was 70 years ago.

“The problem is, what are we still using in management from 1953?” Thomason asks. “Filing cabinets, inkwells, pens, adding machines, typewriters? They’re all gone. The one thing that stayed is the thinking mechanism that helps us to define how we as a business should grow, where we'll go in the future. We’d never build our organization's future on a 70-year-old computer, but we build it on 70-year-old thinking which had been proven time and time again to be inefficient compared to doing your own thinking.”

So, what should we be doing instead? The answer is a method Thomason calls "Freaky Thinking". 

3 Tips on Using "Freaky Thinking"

1. Find your killer question

Your killer question is something that you may spend years working on. The answer, when you have it, should help with an important problem in your organisation. But, according to Thomason, your question must also be “enduring”.

“An enduring question is something that even when answered well, you could answer it better later on. It’s a hard question; you don't answer it and it’s solved. You will want to keep finding better answers. So, the nature of a killer question means that it's worthwhile actually spending some time on it.”

As such, crafting a killer question should not be rushed or crammed into a three-minute slot in a meeting. Otherwise, as Thomason warns, you risk wasting time “crafting the perfect answer to the wrong question.”

What in your employer brand project is causing you an issue right now? Craft your killer question so that you have a direction for your thinking.

2. Use meetings to share ideas, not generate them

Have you ever asked an open question in a meeting only to be met with an awkward silence, or a reluctance to share? That’s because we don’t really come up with our best ideas under the pressure of a spotlight. An idea is like a seed that must be planted, cultivated with both conscious and sub-conscious thought, and given space to grow.

This is why Thomason believes that meetings are better spent sharing ideas than creating them. If you give people space to think about a question before you ask them to share, you’ll get much better results because the pre-thinking has been done.

“If you do your thinking in between meetings, you might come up with 20 ideas, but you're bringing your best three,” Thomason says. “So, in a way, they're not just any ideas. They’re not so out of the box that they’re not doable. They're your best ideas to a tough question. And by default, they should have value there.”

Once your team have shared, they can build and develop each other’s ideas, which is where, according to Thomason, “the potential for great freaky thinking lies.”

3. An alternative to brainstorming

The next time you’re tempted to hold a brainstorm sesh, Thomason recommends you try this exercise instead, to unlock the power of "freaky thinking".

Ask your team a vague question and stipulate they cannot ask any questions about it. Normally when you ask a vague question, people want clarification, but any attempts to drill down will limit the creative directions people will think in, so resist answering questions.

Allow people to write for two minutes uninterrupted, then ask someone to share their ideas.

They may be reluctant. They may assume, due to the vagueness of the question, that the direction they’ve taken is ‘wrong’. Instead of commenting on the value of the idea, simply say “thank you” and move on to the next person.

You will notice that the breadth and creativity of ideas is much greater than if you had taken out loud suggestions and immediately set a direction for the conversation. That's because people don’t like to be ‘wrong’, and if they notice someone has taken the idea in one direction, they’re more likely to streamline their own ideas into that lane.

For Thomason, this exercise is less about getting ideas than it is about proving a point.

“When you're given latitude and scope to flex your thinking, to interpret, there's much more value there,” he says. “We feel uncomfortable, but we've got to embrace that discomfort. And that's where managers should say, “Here's a question. Don't ask me about it. Just give me your ideas.” This is what creativity is.”

Whether you get your best ideas in the shower, on a dog walk or while drinking your morning cuppa, it’s important to remember the individuality of your ideas, the singularity of them as ideas only your unique brain could have manufactured, is what makes them so valuable.

As Thomason put it, “There's that phrase ‘great minds think alike’. It's very wrong. Great minds think differently. That's what makes a great mind.”

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