You may not have unlimited time to brainstorm, but you can do more to ensure that it’s on your side.
(This post originally appeared in Inc. Magazine and Kellogg Insight)
Time: you can kill it, call it, serve it, save it, make it, or get it to fly. But one thing entrepreneurs should not do with it, per David Schonthal, is leave it in a liquid state. Constraint, properly harnessed, can be one of the most powerful forces behind ingenuity. And no constraint is more powerful than time.
There are a lot of ways to deploy time successfully. Whether you are deciding to speed up or slow down processes, impose deadlines, or set aside time for reflection, the key is to be conscious of how much time you have and realistic about how you plan to allot that time.
Schonthal, a clinical associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and a portfolio director at IDEO, offers four key suggestions for how innovators can use time to their advantage.
Change Up Your Brainstorming Sessions
The first step of any creative process–generating ideas–can also be the most painful. Cue the mental image of your team members sitting listlessly around a conference table, ostensibly brainstorming but actually inventing new ways to doodle in the margins of their legal pads.
The best way to kick-start the idea-generation process may be to mix things up.
When brainstorming more creative solutions, one approach–backed up by Kellogg research–is to push yourself to brainstorm beyond your normal limits. Once you hit the wall, the thinking goes, you may still have a lot of very good ideas that have not made it out yet.
Schonthal swears by a process that is a bit more counterintuitive: hit it and quit it. Give your team a very short period of time–no more than 10-15 minutes–to get as many ideas as possible related to a specific prompt out on the table. Then work from there.
“People usually enter brainstorms with the wrong objectives and expectations in mind, so it’s no surprise they are dismayed with the results.”
“When you take a resource and constrain it, it forces people to do more with less, and oftentimes they come up with unexpectedly creative solutions,” Schonthal says. “So when you constrain time, it’s great for the process of being generative. People are always surprised by how much they are able to accomplish in three to four minutes. Just getting things out from the inside doesn’t take a lot.”
An important distinction Schonthal makes, however, is that he believes the best use of brainstorming is to set a general direction or vector for design, not that it will yield the
“final” billion-dollar idea right there and then.
“People usually enter brainstorms with the wrong objectives and expectations in mind,” Schonthal says, “so it’s no surprise they are dismayed with the results.”
Launch to Learn
Once your team has identified a concept to pursue, it is tempting to devote a lot of time to refining it before showing it to others. But that may not be the most effective course of action, Schonthal says.
“Something that’s been developed within a week–why not toss it out into the world and see what happens to it?” he asks. “Take the minimum viable version and get real reactions from real people.”
“Some of the earliest examples of Twitter and Airbnb products, they were literally just sketches,” Schonthal says. “But they were good enough concepts to put in front of people for reactions. Yes, there’s the danger of falling on your face, but you don’t want to spend $50 million making the same mistake that you could have made much sooner for less money.”
But will enough face-plants make potential customers wary of your creations? Not necessarily, as long as you are up-front about the fact that you are showing them products in beta.
“You can let them know, ‘Look, this is a work in progress. I just want to see your reaction to it,'” Schonthal points out.
“Consumers have become much more comfortable with looking at stuff long before it’s ready. Look at Google. They slap the word ‘beta’ right there on the masthead, so you know that you’re taking a risk in trying something that’s maybe a little bit ahead of its time.”
Iterate Often and Quickly
If you are launching in beta, you are accepting the fact that you will need to iterate–protoyping, testing, analyzing, and refining your product.
“People often don’t build time in for the iterative process,” he says. “They just assume that things will go well. They look at iteration as a very linear progression: you start at this stage, and you go to this stage. But the reality is, it’s totally messy.”
To allow for that messiness, Schonthal advises, factor in time for lots and lots of iteration cycles–but move through those cycles as quickly as possible.
He points to the experience of student entrepreneurs he oversees in Kellogg’s Zell Fellows Program, a selective venture accelerator. Initially, it takes the students three weeks to move through the first iteration cycle. The next cycle takes two weeks. By the end of the course, each iteration cycle takes less than a week, because the students have learned what “good enough” is.
That’s a crucial lesson, given how quickly things move in today’s product-development world.
“Innovation is faster today than it’s ever been,” says Schonthal. “What can be accomplished in a unit of time is completely different now than what it was when I started ten years ago. Innovation is going to be faster next year than it is today. It’s probably going to continue to go down, down, down, down.”
Take Time to Reflect
But structuring time for invention does not always mean speeding up processes. One of the most important steps in the design process–synthesis–entails deliberately pausing to reflect on what has been observed. And it is a step that is often overlooked.
“I can’t think of very many organizations that create a very clear project objective for reflection,” Schonthal says. “Usually it’s ‘Go, go, go, go, go! What’s the next step? What’s the next step?’ Well, sometimes the best next step is taking a look back at what’s happened already.”
It is natural–even expected–to realize during the synthesis process that the problem you have set out to solve with your product may not be quite the problem your product solves. That may seem like less than great news, but there is an upside: taking time to reflect makes course correction possible.
“Trying to rush synthesis is the kiss of death,” he says. “Unexpected insights necessitate reflection. They’re never on the surface. If they’re on the surface, they’re obvious to everybody, and they’re probably not all that innovative.”