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The Skill Of The Future — Key Insights To Improve Yours

seven key insights that will ignite your idea fluency


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Bram Nauts

3 years ago | 7 min read

Let me take you back to a warm sunny Friday morning somewhere in Amsterdam. A buddy of mine and I grabbed a freshly made espresso and started to scribble our thoughts on a whiteboard. After a while, we took a step back to view the board. Out of a sudden, an ever-increasing sound of ‘yeah’ started to appear accompanied with fingers pointing at each other. We were on to something.

Both feeling pumped up, we started to play the ‘what if’ game; no boundaries, just dreaming and building on the thoughts we wrote down with a 10X growth mindset. New ideas started rolling in like waves during a stormy day at the beach. Did we plan it, no, but it felt amazing. We were swinging for the fences, connecting the dots and boom.

It generated so much positive energy, incomparable with anything I ever experienced. Creating ideas from scratch, out of thin air, just wow, nothing is quite like it.

“Everything Begins With An Idea” — Earl Nightengale

Today’s world is getting more complex, dynamic and will ever-increasingly be impacted by change. With this in mind, I strongly believe that idea fluency will become one of the sought after skills of the future.

A quick browse on the internet confirmed my suspicion, amongst others, the future of skills employment list indicates that in 2030 your ability to generate lots of ideas will be a key differentiator. Even further down the road, I believe that your ability to generate ideas will become career-critical.

Max Tegmark author of the excellent book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence — a meticulous description of how artificial intelligence (A.I.) may impact life as we know it — shows our creative abilities are crucial.

He uses an illustration of Hans Moravec depicting the landscape of human competence across a range of abilities (see below), where elevation in the landscape represents the difficulty for ‘A.I. water’ to flood. These future-proof abilities tucked away high in the mountains all rely, if you ask me, on one fundamental must-have skill: complex idea generation.

Want to shake up the market? It starts with an idea. Want to save money? You first need to generate ideas. Want to be more efficient? Want to beat Skynet? … ideas! From innovation to complex problem solving, the market needs people that are idea prone. It will be a fundamental survival skill for businesses — they all need people that dare to challenge the status quo and come up with a tidal wave of ideas.

Too often I hear people making statements “everything has been thought of” or “I am not creative”. Please don’t be that guy or girl… Do you know how many varieties there are for a pen? A ball-point pen, ruling pen, fountain pen, rollerball pen, styluses, brush pens, dip pen, quill, reed pen, fine liner, gel pens, highlighters, permanent and whiteboard markers, multi-colour pens, gel ink pens, smart pens, technical pens, … I believe that everyone is able to come up with ideas utilising the right techniques. An idea is nothing more than combining new and old elements.

Combining existing ingredients that you already know in a new way. Since that summery day in Amsterdam, I made it one of my personal development goals to improve my ability to generate ideas. Today I want to share seven key insights that will ignite your idea fluency:

Insight 1 — Be Interrogative

Your perspective will change by asking different kind of questions — reformulating the problem statement might be enough to release a spark to ignite an idea. Like Henry Ford when he invented the assembly line — forcing himself to find an answer to: “how do we get the people to the work?” and “how do we get the work to the people?”. Or back in the day when grocers were trying to get groceries faster to their customers.

Somebody came up with the concept of a supermarket, triggered by finding an answer to: “how can I let the customer get the groceries for me?”. You need to ask the right question to get the answer. There are so many questions to be asked, open your mind, look at a given situation and fire away. Be interrogative and dare to keep asking questions!

Insight 2 — Find Your Partner In Crime

Find that energetic, out of the box thinker that helps you to get into the creative flow. It is like Ray Dalio stated in his book Principles: “1+1=3”. Two people that collaborate well are about three times as effective as one person.

You can feed off each other, you have different experiences, different reference points, leverage each other’s strengths and energy while at the same time hold each other accountable to keep pushing. I noticed that expanding your circle during ideation will backfire. It will hamper your ability to unleash yourself.

The same has been found in group brainstorming (spoiler alert: this technic doesn’t work), where people tend to engage in social loafing and have fear about what the group may think about their ideas and as a result, people often remain silent. So, keep the circle small — find that one friend!

Insight 3 — Press Reset

We are confined by rules, values, assumptions, fear, history, education, …you name it. Our thinking is unconsciously inhibited by assuming that a problem has certain boundaries, restrictions, constraints and limitations while there are none. Particular education made many of us zombies to the one answer attitude. A mentor of mine always challenged this mentality that seems to be ever-present in our society.

He often forced me to throw away my proposal and come up with another to prove that there are more solutions to a problem. During ideation ask yourself: what limitations am I putting on myself and what assumptions am I making? Remember that most advances in history are made by breaking the rules: from Vincent van Gogh breaking the rules on what flowers looked like to Sigmund Freud breaking the rules on how to treat illness. Rules are meant to be broken, so press reset and let go of your boundaries!

Insight 4 — Boost Productivity

Not all boundaries are bad, setting explicit constraints can be extremely helpful to stimulate creativity. If you operate with total freedom I often notice that you will flounder. Too much freedom leads to chaos, you need to have a framework to work within.

But don’t forget as described in insight 3, it should guide and not govern you. The Ceasar salad is a great illustration of how a constraint can boost creativity. As the story goes, the salad was simply invented by Chef Cardini because he was forced to make a dish with the ingredients he had available at hand.

A limitation on the ingredients led to a world-famous dish. The most stimulating constraint I ever found is time. Setting deadlines will spur you to get something accomplished, even if it is generating an idea, so give yourself one!

Insight 5 — Search For Analogies

Inspired by a passage in David Epstein’s book Range of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, I found that analogies are a great way to generate ideas. Back in the 17th century, the world was strongly influenced by religion and the concept of gravity didn’t exist yet. But Kelper was first to recognise that unchanging planets couldn’t be correct.

As there was no previous evidence for him to work with, he used analogies. Kelper asked himself why do planets that are farther away move more slowly? To solve this he used analogy on analogy. For example, he imagined planets were like magnets, with poles at either end.

By using various analogies he shaped the laws of planetary motion. To quote Kelper: “I cherish more than anything else the Analogies, my most trustworthy masters. They know all the secrets of Nature…”. Analogical thinking allows you to recognise conceptual similarities across domains that on first sight might have little in common — inspiring you to come up with ideas.

Insight 6 — Connect The Dots

Too often I see people working in silos — only counting on the information in front of them. It is of paramount importance to explore research journals, other industries, talk to different people, read lots of books, listen to different kinds of music, travel… It stands to reason if you grow your internal body of knowledge with diverse information and experiences you are more likely to come up with ideas. It will improve your ability to connect the dots and thereby help you to arrive at ideas you might not have arrived at otherwise.

And please don’t let money nor time be a limitation, as Gary Vaynerchuk stated: “Google is your mother” — browsing the internet places new information right at your fingertips. There are countless examples of people outside a domain that solved a complex domain-specific problem by connecting the dots with seemly irrelevant knowledge sources. Expand your horizon and connect the dots!

Insight 7 — Go Wild

Sitting behind your desk with EarPods will not get you in a creative spirit. Get wild and HAVE FUN! Get up, stand up, run through the office, get out the fingerpaint, go crazy. Shifting scenery, changing your routine and getting your body in motion will help you to see things differently, which might be enough to ignite your idea fluency. Small things like daily afternoon walks or walking meetings will do wonders — ensuring you have focus and a clear mind during the day.

Lastly, Be Fearless

Ideas are very delicate and easily destroyed by a simple frown, a silly joke or even by silence. We should be very vigilant to discouraging behaviour and do our utmost best to actively stimulate idea generation. Hence, it is key for companies to have advanced idea management in place to structurally promote idea fluency. Often I come across people that seem bereft of ideas — noticing that fear of dismissal results in people remaining silent.

People that deliberately choose to remain silent when having relevant ideas is a paramount important issue that requires our unflinching attention. It needs to be addressed with ruthless and massive action. Read my article on the chains of silence and discover how to stimulate people to speak up.

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