You’re facing a big challenge at work and can’t come up with any innovative ideas. Maybe your business is flagging or a particular area in your personal life has stalled. Either way, you could really use fresh new ideas to spice things up.
In situations like these it’s tempting to go seek help from the experts. After all, someone much more knowledgeable should be the best source of ideas, right?
Well, maybe not.
The Problem with Experts
Experts need to specialize. They need to draw boundaries around their subjects so they can narrow their focus and be as effective as possible in their fields.
This ‘compartmentalization in thinking’ is immensely useful in speeding up problem solving. It also means experts usually fall short in stretching their thinking beyond their areas of expertise, and as such fail to see the big picture.
Michael Michalko puts it well in his book Thinkertoys: “It’s like brushing one tooth. You get to know that one tooth extremely well, but you lose the rest of them in the process.”
But it gets worse: experts may not only miss obvious solutions, but they may actually cause harm, forcing inadequate solutions that fall within their area of expertise. “To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail”, psychologist Abraham Maslow wisely remarked.
Although experts are often useful, when it comes to innovation you may actually be better off without them.
An Alternative: Embrace The Nonexperts Around You
The alternative to talking to experts is — drum roll — talking to nonexperts, of course.
Regular people around you. Your soccer buddies. The garbage collector. Uncle Bob. It doesn’t matter who: anyone outside your field, anyone who’s strange to the problem — anyone who “doesn’t know the rules” will do.
Regular people — nonexperts — don’t have enough experience to know where to draw boundaries: they’re unaware of limitations or “how things are supposed to work”. In their naïveté, they’ll miss many constraints and assumptions you take for granted — which is exactly the point. These are the people who will most likely spark fresh new ideas for you. They can genuinely think outside the box: for them, there’s no box.
We have a tendency to always go after more specialized people for getting help in our problems — and that works in many cases. But for creative endeavors, perhaps all you need is someone who knows less.
The great news is that there is no shortage of nonexperts around you. Everyone is a nonexpert at most things. All you need is to know how to tap into their non-expertise in the area you need help. Here are 3 tips to help.
1. Meet Different Kinds of People — Lots of Them!
To build a solid network of idea-generating friends, first and foremost you need to strive for diversity.
It doesn’t matter if you have 500 peers to draw ideas from if everybody else’s mind is the same: it’s not a matter of how many people you know, it’s how many kinds.
Resist the temptation to seek advice only from people who think alike: it’s comfortable, I know, but it hinders you from fully expanding your mind. Go out and mix with people with diverse interests for a change!
Getting in touch with many different perspectives is guaranteed to keep your creative juices flowing (and as a bonus you become a much more interesting person in the process!).
Find out how different people would tackle your problem. How would a nurse do it? A 5-year-old child? An economist? Your mom?
Never miss the opportunity to have casual conversations with strangers. The butcher, the old lady ahead of you in the line and the ice cream vendor are all sources of potentially useful ideas. Even if you don’t discuss your particular problem directly (which of course may not always be a sensible thing to do), discovering different perspectives about random life subjects is useful in itself to spark new ideas.
2. Seek Out Idea-Oriented People
Having an abundant circle of relationships always comes first, but after striving for quantity, you now need to make sure you have quality relationships too!
There’s a certain breed of people that you’ll always benefit from having around: it’s the kind of thinkers that spark your imagination whenever you talk to them. You know who they are:
- They love original ideas and use them in their businesses and lives.
- They are relentlessly curious and pay attention to the world around them.
- They may be naïve about your business, but are not stupid or ignorant of the things that matter.
- They have great wits and challenge the absurdity in things.
Make a list of people who you know have those traits and arrange to spend more time with them. Never let too much time pass without staying in touch with them. Discuss your challenges and ask for ideas — or just engage in idle chatting (which also sparks a torrent of ideas in itself).
Having such vibrant people around you is invaluable for your creativity and too fun to miss out.
3. Engage in “Fool Mode” (Assume Everybody’s a Genius)
This is a fun technique I use sometimes. I like to call it “Fool Mode”.
When I’m in “fool mode”, everybody knows the solutions to my problems. Everybody is a genius — except me. In fact, not only do they know the solution I’m looking for, but they may be already giving it away — the only caveat being they’re talking in riddles — so it’s my job to figure it out!
Adopting the fool’s mindset works great because it checks our tendency to kill ideas before giving them at least some thought.
Think about this: When someone presents us an idea we can’t see the use for, our tendency is to dismiss it immediately, labeling it a ‘stupid idea’. Now what if the other person were a well-known genius — like, say, Einstein? Would you not consider paying a little more attention to what he would have to say? Of course you would! It’s in that thinking — trying to force relationships between seemingly unrelated ideas — that your breakthrough idea may lie.
Being in “fool mode” is also fun and teaches important lessons: You open your mind to the world. You temporarily suspend judgment and let go of any intellectual arrogance you may have. You assume everybody has something to contribute — and what you come to realize, of course, is that they do.
You shouldn’t expect random people to actually solve a complex problem they don’t know about. But, if you have an open mind and are willing to listen, they can spark off a torrent of fresh new ideas, which may be just enough for you to solve the problem yourself.
So, by all means don’t dismiss experts. They have more experience and can often help you. But don’t forget that the great innovative ideas are usually elsewhere. The solution you’re looking for may be with your neighbor or with weird uncle Bob — you just need to go get it.