I recently began watching the series Mad Men (I know, I am way behind the times).  In the first episode Don Draper, the hero ad man, frets throughout because he can’t think of a great idea to pitch at an upcoming meeting with a cigarette company.  He goes about his day never quite anxious but always testing ideas in the back of his mind. As he enters the meeting it becomes clear that he has nothing to share – no good ideas for how to differentiate Lucky Strikes from all of the other cigarettes out there.  As the company executives express their disappointment and get up to leave – BAM – an idea hits him. He miraculously saves the day with a brilliant, last minute piece of creativity.

What is the lesson to be learned by teams and other inventors when coming up with a new idea?  Don’t rush. Don’t panic. Don’t give up. In fact, I know that if I am rushed my brain has a hard time thinking creatively.  At the start of the competition, after the category was announced, our team rushed to our table and spent time not talking.  Instead, we were each thinking through the topic and jotting down thoughts before we began brainstorming as a group.  I had heard a TED talk which suggested that we shouldn’t jump right in and start trying to “think outside the box”. As reported in a blog post for the Harvard Extensions School:

When it comes to the creative process, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, has found that procrastination can lead to better ideas.

In a New York Times op-ed column, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate”, Grant explores the correlation between performance and procrastination habits, citing an experiment conducted by one of his former students. Jihae Shin, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, asked participants to generate new business ideas. Some were randomly assigned to start right away. Others were given five minutes to first play Minesweeper or Solitaire. Everyone submitted their ideas, and independent evaluators rated how original they were.

The result? The procrastinators’ ideas were rated as 28 percent more creative.

Keeping in mind the Don Draper story and research on procrastination, I recommend slowing down the most creative phase of the invention process – the idea creation.

After cooling of and spending time thinking to ourselves, how did we approach the idea stage?  Inventions in general start with identifying a problem. So, once we knew we needed an “Outdoor Product” we got to work by first discussing  what problems needed to be solved.

Step 1 Brainstorm: What is the problem?

After our first individual “procrastination” thinking time, we sat down together and spent quite a bit of time discussing problems we could think of that fit the category.  In true brainstorming fashion, we wrote down all ideas no matter how big or small. We didn’t judge yet the value of the problems on our list. We just shared problems.

After doing this for some time we began to focus our thoughts.  While there are many great ideas and products aimed at solving small but important problems we knew that a winning product for Make48 would be one that had mass market appeal.  So, we started crossing problems off our list that we believed would have a small or niche market (eg. bugs in your wine glass).  We also started crossing off ideas that we felt were unsolvable with our level of expertise (eg. smoke getting into your eyes from a campfire and keeping bugs off you while at a backyard barbecue).  We whittled down our list until we had two or three “big” problems we thought we could tackle.

Step 2 Brainstorm: What is the solution?

At this point we started the process of trying to creatively think about solutions to our focus problems.  Again we used our chart paper to record ideas as we tossed them out to the group. We didn’t feel good about any of them right away.  Ideas included a sled to carry beach items, a reflective phone case to keep a phone cool, a stadium seat with a built in blanket, a rotating umbrella stand, and a wedge shaped recliner.  

TIP: Make sure to use Google to find out if ideas that you like have been done before.  Erik thought of a stadium seat with built in blanket but mentor Chris knew that it had been done before.

As we narrowed our list of possible solutions down we made sure to test out our thoughts on non-contestants who were milling around in the room.  The feedback we got from these “instant focus groups” helped us pick our final idea and allowed us to move ahead with a bit of confidence. We were ready to start working on a functional design and thinking about how it would be built.

TIP: Keep criteria in mind for a successful product.  I adapted this list from one of Carrie Jeske’s (WillItLaunch.com) blog posts about what sells on TV.  To help me remember her main criteria I remember EMOGE (pronounce like “emoji”).

  • Easily Explained (people get it quickly)
  • Mass Appeal
  • Original
  • Good Price
  • Easily Demonstrated (on TV)