5 Ways to Generate Ideas that Add Strategic Value

In 1982, Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler starred in the movie Night Shift. Henry and Michael played two attendants holding down the night shift at the City Morgue. Henry played the role of uptight, reserved, “by-the-book” employee. Michael played the role of an off-the-way self-professed “idea man.” Michael Keaton lived Steinbeck’s quote. In fact, he carried around a portable cassette player so he could record all of his great ideas. In one scene of the movie, Michael Keaton is eating a tuna fish sandwich. He pauses for a moment and records one of his great ideas…pack the tuna in the can with mayonnaise. Michael pauses for a moment and then he says, “hold the phone…why don’t they just feed the fish mayonnaise.” In 1982 when Keaton came up with the idea of packing the tuna in the can with mayonnaise, everyone in the theater laughed. And yet, it was only a few years later that manufacturers did start packing tuna in the can with mayonnaise. What a great idea.


As a leader, do you come up with great ideas or do you help facilitate your team to come up with great innovative ideas? In some ways, all of us have a little Michael Keaton in us when it comes to developing ideas. We may have hundreds of different ideas during the day. Most of the time, our ideas are little ones that we don’t act on. The bigger ideas, we may write down on a napkin or a “things to do” list. But, if you want to be a leader who develops and facilitates great ideas, put the following 6 tips into practice.


Carve out time to think: The biggest challenge in generating the big, strategic life- and business-changing ideas is finding the time to clear your mind and just think. Most leaders spend the majority of their time on their operational duties, solving day-to-day problems. Find time where you can clear your mind of these tasks and think about opportunities and what the future may be like.


Look outside your own world: If you only hang out with hammers, then every viable opportunity tends to look like a nail. Look at what other industries and businesses are doing and see how one of their ideas may connect to something you could develop into a great idea. Hang out with people outside your normal social group who have a reputation for generating creative ideas that lead to innovative success.


Hang out with creative, innovative people: Some of your friends and business associates are always working on something creative and new. Some of their ideas work and become successful. Other ideas don’t. But, all creative and innovative people think, create and take action. If you want to be creative and have great ideas, spend time with the right type of people. Ideas, creativity and innovation in some ways is like hitting a baseball. You don’t need to get a hit with each at bat (innovative idea). You only need to get a hit around three out of every 10 at bats to end up in the hall of fame.


Ask more questions: Most leaders are good at looking at other business models and then quickly judging whether that would be good for their business. Fewer leaders dig deeper to ask questions about why the other businesses made the decisions they did, how the decisions were implemented, and what outcomes or success did they generate. It’s only when you dive deeper with questions that you’re able to stimulate creative ideas that may bridge over to your business.


Noodle your ideas: If you have ever been a member of an orchestra, then you know about noodling. Prior to the conductor taking the stage and asking the first oboe to play an “A”, members of the orchestra are encouraged to play their instruments. The only thing they are usually requested not to do is play recognizable music or the tunes that will be played in that performance. As each musician joins the noodle, the medley gets louder with passion and excitement. For some musicians, making new music by noodling is another highlight in their performance. Noodling is a great example of how a lot of different ideas can come together and build a bridge to something great.


Create an idea generation exercise: List a problem or opportunity. Then, create a list of all the ideas you can think of that will take advantage of the opportunity or solve the problem. See if you can come up with 20 new ideas. When you run out of ideas, facilitate an idea generation session and see if you can build up the list to 40. With 40 ideas, you will find some great ones that are worth acting upon.


Great leaders know their job is not to come up with all the ideas, but to create an environment where team members are empowered to think of ideas that will solve problems or improve the condition of the team. Review with your team these five actions to improve creativity and innovation. You never know when the next “pack the tuna in the can with mayonnaise” breakthrough idea will take your team to the next level.

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