Overcoming Innovator’s Block

The one infallible trick (well, it works for me) you can use when you’re trying to come up with a new project idea but you’re getting nothing but a painful and maybe even downright terrifyingly frustrating zilch.

If you’ve already got a promising idea that you want to pursue, but just need to refine it, this method isn’t for you.

But if you have come up with absolutely bupkiss and you need something fast, this is just about as reliable as you could possibly imagine (but maybe just as insanely counter-intuitive).

No beating about the bush, here comes the trick:

Always (always!) try to start with a really (amusingly? annoyingly?) stupid, utterly impractical idea, but one that has a good heart.

Why start this way?

The ‘good heart thing’ is actually nothing more than specifying a genuinely serious problem that your deliberately lame-sounding solution is supposed to clumsily try to address.

The heart of the idea is there just to make sure you will want to explore it, the stupid and impractical aspect is there to give everyone a really easy time shooting it down (by making the impracticalities of the proposed solution as obvious as possible).

It turns out that ‘shooting down ridiculous ideas’ is actually a fantastic tool for transforming even your most chaotic, clueless and undisciplined frame of mind into feeling like a fire-breathing entrepreneurial Dragon, ruthlessly adept at spotting futility and nipping it in the bud.

If you still don’t find the idea easy enough to shoot down, it just might not be stupid enough, so feel free to reformulate it with additional stupidity.

Need a criterion for stupidity? Keep going until it makes you (or at least someone) laugh.

If you can’t make anyone laugh at what you think are stupid ideas, you may actually have a different problem: you might just not know how to spot your own good ideas (nobody laughs at really good original-sounding ideas: well, not without also acknowledging that they sound like good ideas)

If you don’t find your stupid-sounding idea worth bothering to try to shoot down, it probably means that it doesn’t have a good enough heart yet, so start thinking about a problem that either seems more important, or painful, or more in urgently need of a solution.

Bigger problems usually make silly solutions look worse.

Unlike iterating a project idea that you truly, madly, deeply believe in, iterating the job of identifying and mocking (yes, merciless scorn and derision is an essential part of this ritual) stupidity is always easier to invent (see below for an exception to this) always faster to iterate and the job of coming up with the heart aspect (the positive sentiment and aim behind the idea) is often easier still, because problems are usually easier to come up with than solutions, even if the initial solutions are meant to be stupid.

However,  be careful, this process needs to be conducted in a ‘controlled environment’ if you do it collaboratively, so never fail to systematically warn all participants that the initial ideas under consideration are intended as hapless ‘straw men’, or even ‘Wicker men’, about to be subjected to trial by fire, otherwise expect (unnecessarily and unhelpfully) injured egos (unless, of course, any of the others actually do come up with a genuinely workable idea, in which case you may just find you have got yourself a project with a co-founder).

You won’t feel that you are doing that good heart justice unless you are seriously trying to reduce the stupidity with each iteration on the journey to finding something where it actually looks like it might be worth trying to do more about it than just point out its shortcomings.

In ‘startup speak’, this takes the Lean-Startup methodology to a whole new level.

Introducing the requirement for mandatory stupidity means that you are likely to feel compelled to change something about the proposed solution (i.e., make a pivot) or even choose a different problem to solve (a ‘project restart’) before you have wasted any time whatsoever trying to implement anything (i.e., before you even think of trying to create a Minimum Viable Product).

Every flame you throw at a stupid idea for solving a real problem has a surprisingly good chance of being followed by a claim that sounds like ‘as genuinely stupid as that sounds, if you just did such and such instead, then at least…’, because wanting to achieve something good by doing something stupid provides us with the one thing we need more desperately than anything else when we find ourselves confronted with the dreaded “innovator’s block”: inspiration, often arising from irritation.

Just like writers, innovators can also sometimes find themselves unaccountably beset by ‘block’, a soul-destroying affliction which can make a complete mockery of their otherwise omnipresent sense that “the world is their oyster”.

Further metaphors about stupidity, grit and pearls just don’t seem to go very well with the burning man theme above, so I think I’ll leave it at that.

An example: my own innovator’s block regarding this article

I asked a friend for some help with making this article more helpful and among the many excellent suggestions they made, they recommended that I should include an example of an idea that would be easy to shoot down.

I somehow managed to overlook the need to do this, but much to my horror, I soon spotted the reason why I hadn’t included an example of a stupid project idea when I tried to come up with one: I simply couldn’t think of a startup idea that seemed to me to be intrinsically stupid! (which kind of risks invalidating that perfectly plausible claim that I made at the beginning: infuriating, eh?)

When I put this to them, they came up with an inspired way to overcome this particular problem, an idea to help tackle what you might call:

Overcoming Stupidity Block

Try to think of an idea that someone notorious for coming up with seemingly desirable, yet comically poorly thought-through hare-brained schemes (someone like Homer Simpson or Mister Bean?) would come up with (with Homer, I suspect it would probably involve donuts, either as a problem, or a solution, or both).

Please feel free to send examples of stupid ideas (but only ones created in this way and none involving donuts) to peterf@iijiij.com) and I will publish the funniest of them: they might just help other sufferers of innovator’s block and ultimately save the world.