Amidst the ever-changing corporate landscape, it’s more important than ever to approach business challenges with a mindset that’s open to new ways of thinking. Across our clients, truly innovative leaders have one thing in common — they are associative thinkers, with the ability to connect previously unconnected dots.
Within the innovation space, associative thinking multiplies the impact of your brain’s ability to collect and connect dots in new ways, generating breakthrough ideas. As you tackle your tough innovation and growth challenges, keep the following tips in mind to ensure you are engaging in and activating associative thinking:
1. Surround yourself with high-quality stimuli Just like “you are what you eat,” you are what you take in. Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative, recognizes that solutions to your creative problems are unlikely to come from staring harder at the problem. Rather, you should be learning from material that’s challenging, relevant, and diverse — challenging to where your view of the world is changing; relevant to your problem, yet not specific solutions; and diverse enough to help expand your capacity to process information.
2. Study adjacent trends and analogs from outside categories. Once you’re clear on the need or problem you’re solving for, it can be difficult to nail down how to address it. Learning how other categories and contexts have solved for similar needs is an effective way to spark associative thinking by giving your team a fresh collection of inspiration to pull from to form new ideas. Some of the greatest innovations and discoveries have come from looking at a problem through a slightly different lens in this way. For example, scientists have studied woodpeckers to prevent head injuries, and the subscription box model has been recycled over and over again for many different applications, from recipe kits to razors. Who knows–the latest engineering feat from NASA just might inspire a new line of snacks.
3. Keep a pulse on what’s happening outside your network Actively searching for and networking with people different from you is an easy way to gain fresh, new ideas. Sit down with people from different industries, backgrounds, religions, ages, countries, etc. to learn, and share your challenges. The responses given may surprise you, and will most likely help you reframe things.
4. Question the unquestionable Force yourself to ask and answer questions that impose constraints on you and those around you. Questions like: “What if we couldn’t sell to existing customers next year?” “What if one of our key leaders suddenly left the organization?” “What if there was an ethical crisis in our industry?” “What if we had to deliver the same output for 25% of today’s cost?” Sometimes the questions might seem outlandish and disconnected, but this line of thinking forces you to think outside of industry norms and often produces compelling new ideas.
5. Frequently put yourself in new situations It’s easy to become desensitized to the same old places, so by entering new environments you’re forced to observe and learn more. You could visit new countries, take part in out of industry conferences, travel to new cities, join unfamiliar organizations, or attend a local TEDx event. There are an infinite number of analogs available to apply back to your business if you take the time to put yourself in unique places to learn and get inspired.
6. Experiment to see through a different lense Michael Dell was 15 when he took computers apart to figure out how they worked. His experimentation process of building and rebuilding led him to his vision for Dell and his disruptive direct-to-consumer business model. For you, it could be picking up a new hobby, learning a new skill, or taking something apart and putting it back together. While you’re exploring, look for insights around how things work, fit together, support, or interrupt each other.
7. Practice Associative thinking isn’t a one-time event; you have to keep at it. In order for the above suggestions to become strengths, you must practice them time and time again. It’s extremely hard work, but once you develop the competency for it, the time you invest in innovation will be much more productive.
We all have great ideas. In fact, the world is full of people just sitting on their great ideas. What will separate you is having the courage to move forward on your idea. You may not have all the answers from the get-go, but trust that they will reveal themselves as you progress.