Wednesday, August 29, 2007

10 Innovation Ideas When You Are on a Deadline

by Gwyneth Dwyer

Stuck? Feeling pressure to perform? Time fleeting? Deadline looming?

Perhaps you're responsible for three fabulous concepts that will drive the marketing of a new retail product line. Or you're charged with redesigning the controversial homepage of an e-commerce Web site. Or you need to present several great options for a new business name—with an accompanying tagline. Or everyone's looking to you to develop that emotionally appealing campaign theme that will boost a sagging fundraising effort.

Every one of those tasks demands innovation and its sidekick: inspiration.

"You can't sit around and wait for inspiration," said Jack London. "You have to go after it with a club."

Pick up your club (your pencil, your laptop, your sketchbook) and let's go. Whatever your particular challenge, these 10 strategies can help you innovate—on a deadline.

1. Zero in

What, exactly, is the task before you? State it clearly—in one sentence, if possible. This may take time, but it's worth it. "A problem well-stated is half-solved," said American pragmatist John Dewey.

2. Take off

Start thinking and don't hold back. Write or sketch everything that comes to mind. Don't get hung up on the right answer. There isn't one.

Not comfortable free-associating? Then force yourself to think in patterns: What's similar? What's opposite? What's more specific? What's more general? What does it look like, sound like, smell like?

Think hard, but go fast. And don't get too fond of anything yet.

3. Talk it over

Grab a colleague. Lose your ego. Brainstorm together, leapfrogging off each other's ideas. Innovation and collaboration are best friends.

4. Avoid the cops

Don't police yourself. And don't let other people police you, either. We've all met them: those with strong opinions, but no ideas. Ask them, politely, to leave. They can help later (perhaps), when it's time to refine your top choices.

"Big ideas are so hard to recognize, so fragile, so easy to kill," said John Elliot, former chairman of Ogilvy & Mather. "Don't forget that, all of you who don't have any of them."

5. Get reckless

Those ideas of yours? Scramble them. Those images you gathered? Rearrange them. What you created in sequence should now be taken apart.

Let's say you have a long list of names—in the order you generated them. Randomize the list, or put it in alphabetical order. You'll get a whole new perspective. And even more ideas.

6. Zone out

Ignore whatever needs solving. Immerse yourself in something entirely different. Read a book or browse through a magazine completely unrelated to your task. Listen to your iPod. Visit a different part of town.

Let some time pass. (Yes, even if you're facing a deadline.) If you've done the work in steps one through five above, your subconscious will pick up where you left off. Just make sure you have a notepad handy.

Paul Williams, founder of Idea Sandbox, advocates carrying an "idea journal" all times. It's good advice.

7. Narrow in

Pull out all your ideas and study them. Select the three best. Be decisive. You simply cannot use everything you created. (It's okay to grieve.) Then circle back to the problem statement you created in step one. Do the ideas still work? (You're nodding yes.)

If the answer is no, go back to step two and start over.

8. Get rational

Write rationales that prove the merit of the three ideas you selected. Explain how they attract your target audience. Communicate your value proposition. Clobber your competition. If you can convince yourself, you can convince others.

9. Polish and persuade

Polish your three chosen ideas, without overworking them. Add a bit more detail, consider them in a larger context, spin them out in new directions. Do they hold their own? Present them—formally—to the key decision makers.

10. Decide to decide

Here's the fun part: Get the group to commit to one idea. Don't waffle. One great idea is all you really need.

Gwyneth Dwyer is director of writing services at Larsen (, an interactive, branding, and design firm with offices in Minneapolis and San Francisco.

Published on August 28, 2007

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