Disciplined Dreaming

By: Josh Linkner



Business success is most often based on creativity and original thought, not technical mastery. Business legends—people like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and Bill Gates—are remembered because of what they created.

Businesses have systems and processes for everything, from answering the phone to taking out the trash. Remarkably, most companies have no such system for the one thing that matters most: developing and growing creative capacity.

In Disciplined Dreaming, Josh Linker provides a five stage system to attack any Creativity Challenge, big or small, and, in the process, to build a culture of creativity and sustained growth.

Step 1: Ask.

The first step of Linkner’s Disciplined Dreaming process is to identify and define your specific Creativity Challenge (whatever its size). As the old saying goes, “You'll never hit a target you cannot see.”

Like any designer, starting with a brief will help you “fill in the blanks” as you define your Creativity Challenge. Common elements of the brief include statements on the following (sub RIFM code: OHODATA):

  • Overview: a description of the project and what problem the client is trying to solve.
  • History: What has led up to this point? What has been tried before, and what were the results?
  • Objective: What specific outcome is the client trying to accomplish? How will success be measured?
  • Deliverables: What is the physical output that is due at the end of the project?
  • Audience: Whom will this message reach? What do we know about this audience, and how can we tailor the messages appropriately?
  • Timeline: specific due dates for milestones throughout the project as well as a final completion date.
  • Approver: Who are the key decision makers, and specifically which people must provide approval at each stage of the project?

The Creativity Brief will serve as your North Star and guide you toward the best possible creative outcome. It’s also an important “sales” tool for getting buy-in for your creative ideas from bosses, CFOs, team leaders, and others who may need to authorise the project or approve steps along the way.

The important thing is to lay the groundwork with as much vision and clarity as you can and then begin the creative journey.

Ask the Three Magic Questions Why? What if? Why not?

Asking “Why?” helps you understand the current state of affairs and challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom. When you ask “What if?” you are exploring fresh possibilities and imagining how the world would look if you made a change or if a new idea came to life.

Asking “Why not?” helps you understand constraints. It allows you to connect with the limiting factors that are currently blocking positive change.

Linkner gives this example. A mother is making meatloaf with her teenage daughter, a ritual they've been doing together for years. As part of the tradition, the two chefs cut the end off one side of the meatloaf before putting it in the oven. One day, the teen asks, “Mom, why do we cut the end off the meatloaf before we put it in the oven?”

Taken by surprise, the mom began to think. She had no good reason, other than that's how her own mother made meatloaf.

Together, the two called up Grandma to find the answer. After a brief laugh, the grandmother admitted that she didn't know the answer, either; she'd learned the technique from her mother.

Their curiosity sparked, the three went to visit Great-Grandma in the nursing home where she lived. Upon hearing the question, the ninety-eight-year-old great grandmother roared with laughter. “I have no idea why you are cutting the end off the meatloaf! I used to do it because I didn't have a big enough pan!”

Unfortunately as the author says, most companies are filled with meatloaves. Use this story to help remind you to question the status quo and to shed light on long-standing traditions that have no real function or benefit.

Step 2: Preparation.

To be creative, you need to be in the right frame of mind to free yourself from creative barriers and release your true creative potential. The right mental state can make the difference between breakthrough and blasé.

Linkner suggests simple activities and games can prime your creative pump and get your brain firing.

Try bringing a beach ball to your next meeting and toss it around for ninety seconds before you get to work. You'll be amazed at how the energy changes in the room.

It’s important to understand the key blockers of creativity so that you can avoid the gridlock and get on with creating your own art so get out of the office! Go to a museum, park, coffee shop, or anywhere else that is inspiring and outside the norm. But avoid becoming distracted: stick to one Creativity Challenge at a time, and then keep a running list of new issues that pop up. Linkner calls this list a Parking Lot. Park your other ideas here. Later, you can go back to the Parking Lot when you've finished dealing with the challenge at hand and can spend more time on the next.

Linkner also recommends you avoid consensus and over analysis. Everyone likes agreement: it feels nice when a group of people are all aligned and everyone has the chance to contribute. But “getting along” can destroy your creative potency.

Ben and Jerry could have been easily convinced by their team that each new flavour was too radical or that one ingredient or another creates too much risk. Has your company ever had a great idea (the business equivalent of Cherry Garcia) that got overanalyzed and ended up as pure vanilla?

Once you have it, here are four rules to keep your creative culture alive:

  1. Fuel passion. Develop a sense of purpose. Your purpose has to answer the question, “Besides the paycheck, why am I coming to work every day?” Promote collaboration. When motivated people work together, a 1 + 1 = 3 effect occurs. Have fun. Having fun puts you in the zone and optimises your brain chemistry for creativity.
  2. Celebrate ideas. If you want your team to be creative, you need to establish an environment that celebrates and rewards them accordingly. At Nike, for example, a leader may invite a department (or the entire company) to see who can come up with the best idea for a new nonslip jogging shoe sole, and offer prizes and recognition for the winning idea.
  3. Encourage courage. Netflix is known as much for its creative culture as its innovative business model. The company has continued to grow and thrive by encouraging employees to take creative risks without fear. They tell their employees to “Say what you think, even if it is controversial. Make tough decisions without excessive agonising. Take smart risks. Question actions inconsistent with our values.”
  4. Fail forward. When you study the great innovators and achievers, you find that they weren't necessarily smarter or inherently more talented. They simply kept trying.

Failing Forward is about taking risks and increasing the rate of experimentation, knowing full well that some experiments won't pan out. The key is to fail quickly. Flush out ideas and let go of the ones that fail.

Step 3 Discover:

In this stage, you break free of the straitjacket of “We've always done it that way” or “This is our usual approach” giving yourself permission to break the mould.

Linkner suggests we look through a different lens. In your next brainstorming session, think about the issue from the perspective of a musician—or a villain or an architect.

By role playing, you can find that fresh perspective yourself, even when looking at problems you've been struggling with for a long time.

Today, opportunity happens constantly. It happens when we see changes in political administrations, climate, consumer preferences, foreign relations, technology, health and fitness, travel habits, fashion, and music.

The trick is to spot the point of change—the point where you can define a “pre” and a “post” condition that signals something new. An opportunity.

Try Turning a Problem Upside Down. Nintendo used to lead the way in gaming consoles that is until competition caught up and bypassed them. Nintendo’s leaders decided to use a non-traditional approach to the problem at hand: the Upside Down.

Rather than fighting the battle for the best graphics or sound, the company decided to turn the problem around and go for something new: the Nintendo Wii. Nintendo changed the problem it was solving. Instead of building a device to support better games, the company built a device with a better game experience.

Or how about putting patterns to use? The ability to recognise and use patterns has long meant the difference between success and failure, and has long been a source of creativity and innovation. Business patterns are virtually endless, and they are easy to discover and apply as cycles repeat.

Burger King launched a campaign called “Have It Your Way” back in the early 1980s to compete with the formulaic McDonald's, and began what would become a pattern of offering on-demand customer customisation.

Step 4 Ignite:

This step is all about kicking off creativity. Kindling the creative fire from the inspirational spark.

If you are staring down the barrel of a large creative project, the challenge can feel daunting. Taking the first step of a mountain climb, beginning a new diet, or registering for the first course of graduate school can be scary and distracting. One of the most common stumbling blocks is the feeling that you need to imagine and perfectly design the entire creative solution before beginning.

Among his suggestions, Linkner offers the following advice.

Don’t start at the beginning. When most people face a big project, they assume they need to start on “page one.” If we try approaching creativity from different points in the work, we may just uncover some hot new sparks, not to mention overcoming the fear of the blank page.

Use Imbizo Groups. Imbizo is the Zulu expression for “gathering.” Imbizo groups—gatherings of people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines who have come together to simply discuss an idea—are one of the most powerful ways to generate creative sparks. These groups are free-form and have no specific end goal in mind, other than exploring.

What’s the Wrong Answer? To uncover some sparks and kick off the creative process, try searching for the wrong answer instead of the right one. Generate ideas to solve the polar opposite of your Creativity Challenge. For example ask, “How could we win an award for the worst customer service?” Linkner advises, if you look at your answers and then flip their meaning around, you may just end up with some powerful ammunition with which to go after your actual Creativity Challenge.

Time travel. When you're struggling to ignite a creative spark, jump in your time machine and go back fifty years. How would people from that era approach your Creativity Challenge? What about a hundred years back? Or five hundred years? Now go forward in your time machine. How would you approach your challenge fifty years into the future? What ideas might you use from the vantage point of a hundred years into the future?

Use a Hemmingway Bridge. When writing, Ernest Hemmingway would often get stuck while starting the next chapter and faced the same frustration with the blank page that any of us feel at the beginning of a project. He developed a technique—known as the Hemingway Bridge—to avoid this start-and-stop challenge. Rather than ending a chapter and then beginning the next day with a blank page, Hemingway would write the first paragraph of the next chapter before ending his day's work.

The next day, he had a head start. Using this same principle and going beyond the obvious break-point you can use the Hemingway Bridge to keep the momentum going throughout your creative project.

Step 5 Launch.

Great ideas are worthless unless they are brought to life. This final step helps you determine which ideas to go on and take them from the proverbial back of a napkin to reality.

The most common approach to idea selection is a matrix scoring technique. Linkner suggests a variant on this: Value mapping. Instead of scoring ideas against such traditional factors as feasibility, time to market, anticipated return on investment and risk , use a set of values that are important to you and your company.

For example, the makers of the board game Cranium created their own value word: CHIFF (clever, high quality, innovative friendly and fun) against which all their ideas are evaluated. Another example is NAF – Novel, attractive and feasible.

What about when the ideas involve a Service? Or Experience? Or People? Role playing is the ideal technique to help determine which ides make the most sense and to identify any “soft spots” that may exist.

Simply act out the customer experience or service you are proposing. The more realistic the better. The closer you can get to simulating the actual experience the more accurate your take on reality will be.

The essence is to combing both right brain creativity with left brain logic, establishing a balance between vision and reality, between dreams and delivery.