Thinking Outside the Box

If you're like me, you admire people who can generate creative new ideas. At work, you might see people who aren't very technically gifted reap rewards because they regularly offer new and innovative ways to solve technical problems. Ironically, often those people with the technical skills have to work out the nuts and bolts of implementing these solutions.

You've undoubtedly had the experience of having an idea that seemed a bit too unconventional. Perhaps you feared that the idea might sound stupid—that if it were truly a good idea, someone else would've already thought of it. In some cases, these fears are legitimate; in most cases, they're unreasonable hindrances. But what's important is someone will eventually offer a similar idea, so why shouldn't it be you?

Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, pioneered brainstorming in 1941. Osborn found that typical meeting protocols actually squelched creativity. The open format he introduced invited participants to develop large quantities of ideas, without filtering anything out. He encouraged group members to build on one another's suggestions instead of becoming locked into defending their own positions. By considering even the wildest, seemingly unworkable ideas, the group could often reshape unusual notions and launch creative and workable ideas. Brainstorming has become a popular way for companies to generate fresh concepts and continues to be an effective business tool.

Personal brainstorming is outside-the-box thinking on a personal level, without the group meeting. With personal brainstorming, you must refrain from self-criticism. Try to think of wild or exaggerated ideas, then build on them. Watch as the unworkable transitions to workable, chaos becomes order, and the quantity of ideas nets quality of ideas.

The problem-solving mindset that most of us employ in IT training, planning, and troubleshooting roles can act as a barrier to effective personal brainstorming. If you're in a meeting and someone offers an unusual idea, your first inclination might be to examine the risks and offer reasons why the idea will fail. Generally, employers encourage this mentality and appreciate people who can analyze risks quickly and save time and money by avoiding problems. But this quick-read ability is in direct opposition to the concept of personal brainstorming, where you withhold analysis until later.

Are you ready to think outside the box? You can start by taking some risks and sharing ideas as they come to you. You might see resistance among your colleagues initially, but they'll likely grow to appreciate your innovation and build upon it. Realize that not every idea is a good idea, that the timing might not be perfect, and that the market conditions might not be ideal. You might need to shape and hone a concept over time or bounce it off others to leverage the idea and see it grow from the foundation you built. What's important is that you step forward.

You can also volunteer for tasks that are outside your comfort zone. Perhaps you'll find an area where you can become your organization's go-to person or resident expert. Seeing the implementation of your creative ideas can be more satisfying than financial rewards, which will likely follow.

If you're in a management position, encourage creative ideas by creating a threat-free atmosphere for discussion. Have employees think about "requirements plus": For example, what can you do to not only meet a client's requirements but anticipate requirements that the client doesn't yet know exist? Develop mentoring opportunities by teaming creative thinkers with others who need to develop this skill. Realize that employees can put in their 40 hours a week and never really have to offer creative ideas; your job is to help them break out of that mold.

On an individual level, use personal brainstorming to think more openly about your career and your training choices and strategies. Take rationality and self-criticism off the table and consider the IT industry—where is it headed, what interests you, what new areas would you like to learn about and pursue, and how can you apply your training effort and dollars more effectively? When you're brainstorming, no wrong answers exist. Good luck.

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