If you’ve spent any time with a child you know they are the epitome of imagination. The simple act of going for a walk can be an elaborate adventure. Suddenly, you’re catapulted to an extraordinary new world. Don’t step on the grass! There are monstrous alligators living there that are invisible due to their magnificent camouflage. But, beware of their teeth; they’re as large as a house and sharper than any sword. You also can’t step on any cracks! They suck you down into a pit of lava that mysteriously doesn’t melt you into oblivion.
When was the last time you went for a walk and thought of yourself in a different world full of possibilities?
This type of imagination, where ideas don’t have to be grounded in reality, is called Blue Sky Thinking and, bar none, kids are the best at it. It’s a way of generating ideas where the possibilities are endless and the sky’s the limit.
In the book, The Culture Code, written by Daniel Coyle, the author describes a study where a group of business school students and kindergarteners were challenged to build the tallest structure they could out of marshmallows, uncooked spaghetti, and tape. While the kindergarteners got to work right away, the business students stood around discussing strategy. On average, the kindergarteners’ towers were twice the height of those constructed by the business students.
Daniel Coyle says “Individual skills are not what matters. What matters is interaction.”
You see kids don’t concern themselves with social hierarchy. Have you seen kids playing together at a park? They could be completely different with little in common but one thing; they’re both at the park that day. Suddenly, they’re best friends with the same goal in mind, having fun, and they work together to achieve this objective.
At a certain point we lose that imaginative flair; the ability to think about the “what if” in terms of positive and creative outcomes. We focus on the negative aspects of our decisions. We analyze our ideas for their practicality and social value. Instead of a creative brainstorm where one idea builds upon another, idea and analysis are simultaneous and we end up dismissing these ideas before they even have a chance.
Take Reggie Brown, the inventor of SnapChat. In a world where documenting your everyday life is second nature on apps like Facebook and Instagram, Reggie Brown dared to think of an app where your pictures disappear. When he initially came up with the idea he was laughed at and told nobody would buy it. Why would anyone want their pictures to disappear? Fast forward to present day and SnapChat is a multi-billion dollar company. Reggie Brown is a Blue Sky Thinker.
There are many constraints to every problem that needs solving. While constraints can force us to creatively solve problems we otherwise wouldn’t have thought of, they can also limit us. Problem-solving with restrictions is great for the purpose of actual innovation and design but Blue Sky Thinking is an asset to use during the ideation phase.
Consider Apollo 13, for instance. They had very real constraints and limitations when they were stuck in space without a solution to their problem. They were limited to what resources they had on board to solve that problem and get back to Earth safely. In this case, you could say they would never have come up with such an ingenious solution to that problem had it not happened and had those limitations not been in place. However, without Blue Sky Thinking and the removal of any restrictions they arguably wouldn’t have been in space to begin with. Not too long ago, travelling to space, much less landing on the moon, was an outlandish idea.
James Cameron is called the “Blue Sky Filmmaker” for a reason. He lives in a land of possibilities and “what ifs”. He came up with the idea for Avatar with Blue Sky Thinking and during the innovation process realized the technology was too far behind. He had to wait for it to catch up to his Blue Sky idea and once it did, gave us the highest-grossing movie of all time.
In a Blue Sky Thinking brainstorm, we leave constraints at the door and enter a world where the boundaries of conventional thinking don’t apply but you don’t have to work in a creative field to benefit from this approach. Here are some practical ways to leverage the advantages of Blue Sky Thinking in your business.
Present the problem to your team without giving them any restrictions, i.e, budget, location, technology, etc. It’s easier to dial things back after the fact than it is to come up with grand ideas under the pressure of restrictions.
Take a moment for the absurd
Leave room for the absurd to take place within the session. Ask child-like questions and see where the process takes you. For example, if you’re a “coffee company”, what would you do to get the Queen of England to ditch her tea drinking ways and make your new brand her staple? Not only that, she even starts to promote it. Maybe you would leverage her love of Corgis. How would that play out? The point is you’ll never know unless you try and sometimes you’ll find a golden nugget in the process.
Involve an outsider
You and your team know the ins and outs of your products or services and that means you have blind spots. Get an outsider to look at your idea and find your blind spots. You may have holes in your ship. Patch them before you set sail.
Let your imaginations run wild and see where the wind takes you. Make a judgment-free space, both for your team and for yourself. Remind yourself of what it was like to be a child when there really was no such thing as a stupid question or a bad idea. Where you gave yourself and friends the freedom to let one thought pile onto another and onto another until the outcome resembled the initial thought very little, if at all, and that was ok. Let us know if you try this approach to Blue Sky Thinking in your next brainstorming session.
Written by Lindsay Robb
Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.