“If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses.'”
Regardless of whether or not ol’ Hank Ford actually said that (it’s pretty dubious), it’s a great quote and it gets to the heart of a great issue – identifying problems is not the same skill as solving them.
I try to live by the maxim that “there are no bad ideas in brainstorming.” Sometimes ideas spontaneously pop into your head, but there are other times when you’re deliberately turning on the creativity engine and trying to work through one or more issues, either by yourself or with a team. In those circumstances, don’t edit or censor yourself. Throw anything and everything at the wall to see if it sticks.
When you’re in the weeds of a problem or issue, you’re often in a bad position to judge whether an idea is good or bad. This is where multiple eyes and opinions are very helpful. Don’t gather together a think tank and then fail to use 100% of its power by not throwing out every idea! You never know which random thought will connect to something else and start a chain reaction to brilliance. Don’t be afraid of “sounding stupid.” It’s brainstorming; 95% of it will be unintelligible garbage and that’s just part of the process.
That goes both ways! If you’re on a team that’s doing some brainstorming, don’t be judgmental of ideas. Treat everything, at least initially, as gold. You want every brain firing on all cylinders, and not wasting precious processing power on self-censorship for fear of being chided. Our anxiety can be a powerful force against us, and if you want great ideas then you want to create an environment that lessens that social fear as much as possible. Practice saying “Awesome!” and writing stuff on a white board – you can pare it down later.
(Free leadership tip: When writing ideas from a team on a whiteboard or similar during a brainstorming session, don’t group ideas by contributor. Mash them all together; it’s a team effort. And that way later when you eliminate ideas during the refinement stage, it won’t look like you’re favoring or disfavoring any one person’s ideas.)
“Identify broadly; solve specifically.” When you’re identifying a problem, try to go as broad as you can. “Horses aren’t fast enough” is one issue, but going even broader you realize the real issue is “people want to get from point A to point B faster.” If you focus on the narrower problem, you try to improve the speed of horses. If you look at the broader problem, you see more potential solutions.
Solving specifically means you need to tailor an idea down to an executable concept. The broad problem of transportation speeds has many potential solutions, but you only need one good one. You won’t ever serve everyone, so get a solution that serves one niche really well and go from there.
Putting it all together: Identify a broad problem, brainstorm as if no one is judging, and then narrow down the best clear single solution and act on it relentlessly until you hit the next problem. Rinse, repeat. Call it the “faster horses” method if you want – an assembly-line for idea generation. Make the spirit of Henry Ford proud.