What if the geniuses behind DVRs, Apple Watches or Post-Its had never asked, “What if?” Now there’s a scary thought.
“What if?” is the essence of creativity; asking it opens the door for your brain to respond with creative solutions to nearly any situation. Some hold the mistaken belief that creativity is a talent few possess, or that we don’t need to be creative if we don’t work in a creative field.
The beauty of “what if?” is that anyone can ask the question and respond in ways that encourage innovation and proactive problem solving. So, just how do you get those problem-solving juices flowing?
We’ve all been there: staring at a blank screen, stumped by a client’s question, or freezing up during a brainstorming session. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy ways to view a problem with fresh eyes. Try these to start:
Build your own inspiration library. Ask yourself “What inspires me? What excites me?” Look through your postal mail, favorite magazines, Instagram feeds and other visual resources to develop what’s known in the advertising world as a swipe file. You can include anything: a competitor’s latest offer, a clever ad layout, a dynamic color combination, or a quirky brochure fold that piqued your interest. Throw it all into a folder, and you have an inspiration library you can return to again and again. Go digital with a bookmarked folder to save interesting site features, unique newsletters or eye-catching landing pages. Some people even work in 3D, filling a box with interesting objects. When you need a new idea, pull out two or more items at random and see if they trigger a new thought or help you visualize a connection.
Take a new approach. Follow the same routine day in and day out? Shake things up a bit to see how simple changes can do wonders to jolt us out of our comfort zone. Hate Westerns? Watch a John Wayne classic you never dreamed you’d sit through. Love NPR? Try a dose of country or Howard Stern for a day. Drink black coffee every morning? Grab a chai latte. You get the picture.
Exercise your body, wake up your mind. Just going for a brisk walk can help relieve the stress and tension that block our ability to think creatively. A little fresh air and time spent getting physical lets your mind wander into new territories. Make sure you get your Zs, too. A classic research study from the University of California shows that REM sleep enhances our innate problem-solving abilities.
If you think it, write it. Maintain an idea log or journal. Write down thoughts, questions, or facts that intrigue you. Try making a list of questions, all beginning with, “What if?” You may be surprised where they lead you. The problems you ponder in your journal can be serious or frivolous. Almost every innovation can be traced back to a problem — large or small — that needed solving.
Become a trend-watcher. Trends represent what’s new, interesting or innovative. In the past, the best way to grab a quick trend snapshot was to head down to your local bookstore (ah, remember those?) and browse their magazine racks. The idea was to be aware of recurring themes or common cover subjects across different publishing categories, and to note any new categories or those suddenly crowded with titles. Today, the same objective can be achieved by lurking on Google Trends, Clubhouse or TikTok, depending on your audience.
Stop while the going is good. Keep up the creative momentum by taking regular breaks, even if you aren’t finished with the project at hand. You’ll return to your task with renewed motivation, enthusiasm, and sustained inspiration. Hey, it worked for Hemingway, so why not give it a try?
Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and not all of your creative thoughts are going to be genius material straight out of the gate. What’s important is to get your ideas down, then revisit them with fresh eyes to see what further connections you can draw (and determine which ideas you can eliminate from consideration).
By asking “what if…,” you’re coming up with answers that may just solve the problem that sparked the question. That’s creative value that every business should harness. If you don’t, you’re surely missing valuable insights before they even reach the drawing board.