By John Loos – Second City Works Writer and Facilitator
It’s easy to see time and creation like natural enemies. We tend to think great ideas need oceans of time to develop, grow, tweak, marinate, and insist on scheduling 40 conference calls to troubleshoot all the possible objections your team lead Brenda might have (She hates sans-serif fonts and the color melon! We can’t mention Q3 and she thinks the word “empower” is so overused it’s lost all its meaning. And remember, she haaaates dolphins and most sea-based mammals. Sea otters are fine.)
Ideation and creation can happen at any time, in even the smallest windows of time.
And then, every single time, Brenda looks at the idea that took six months to create, considers it for about six seconds, and immediately says no. Now, you have to come up with another idea and you only have two days and oh god oh no there’s no time. BRENDA THERE’S NO TIME!!!
Take a deep breath. More time isn’t always a good thing. In fact, too much time can hurt an idea, because oftentimes more time simply means more time to find a reason to hate the idea. And while draconian time crunches aren’t fun either, sometimes a lack of time can inspire our most creative thinking.
At The Second City, we often create with zero time to prepare. That is, we create spontaneously and on the spot as we improvise for our audiences. So we are acutely aware of the power of generating ideas very quickly, creating ideas from abundance and realizing some of the best ideas can be created on the fly and some of the worst ideas can spend months—years, even—being developed in Conference Room Hell.
Here are ways we create quickly, on the go, that help generate fun, evocative and perhaps slightly dangerous ideas.
Cluster! Clustering is brainstorming on the page. You can do it with a group or on your own. All you need is a scrap of paper and a starting point. Take a topic or tendril of an idea you want to dig deeper into, write it at the center of the page, and circle it. Then, simply free associate on that word. Whatever that word makes you think of, write it down near the center bubble, circle it and draw a line connecting the bubbles. At any point, you can focus on a word or phrase in a new bubble out and branch out from there.
Make a List! Quick! Put 60 seconds on the clock. Ready? Go! List five things related to the topic you’re ideating around. Now list five more. Whatever you do, don’t judge yourself and keep pushing forward.
List five of worst possible ideas that would never, ever work. List five that make you laugh. List five you know Brenda would hate but your team would love. List five that Brenda would love but are impossible given the budget.
Lists are another way to generate ideas very quickly and without judgment. In fact, it’s a great thing when the ideas you list are exceedingly terrible. Sometimes, by having all the bad ideas out, you start to see the parameters of your situation more clearly. Or, you might find something actually workable, wonderful and weird in that blast of bad ideas. Something you wouldn’t have gotten to if you had limited yourself to only considering the most cautious, sterile concepts.
Keep a Yes, And Mindset! It’s impossible to edit and create at the same time. If you ever see a professional improv show, you’ll never see the actors stop the scene and say “No no no, I don’t like this. Let’s start over, but this time instead of being medieval cat therapists let’s be astronauts discovering a planet filled with Kardashians.”
For one, a scene about medieval cat therapists is BRILLIANT! (OMG WHY I AM NOT WRITING THAT AS A SCREENPLAY.) Secondly, as improvisers, we don’t try to negate what our scene partners create. Instead, we accept their ideas with a Yes, And mindset and build on whatever our scene partner creates in the scene.
Even in a time crunch, when your team members have unsheathed their razor-sharp Nos and are ready to cut down any idea, remember that letting ideas escape infancy and grow, even for just a minute or two, will lead to a better idea in the end. After all, you don’t know you have the best idea until you have many ideas to compare it to.
Doodle! (Yes, Doodle!) Often times, ideas never escape word or data form. Or, they get killed when they are still just air, spoken meekly about from the corner of the conference room.
Quickly sketch out your idea on a whiteboard or in a notebook. It doesn’t matter if your stick figures are anatomically correct. The worse your drawing abilities, the better (because it’s funny!) Or, if you don’t want to draw or your wrist hurts from too many hours of pinball at the local beercade, pull out some magazines and look for images to either inspire new ideas or illustrate half-baked concepts rattling around in your brain.
Finding quick ways to get your brain thinking in different ways and on different planes is key to creating ideas quickly and without self-judgment.
Ideate In A New Place! Have five minutes to come up with ideas? Get up from your desk, leave the conference room you’ve been in for seven hours and find a nook, or corner of the office to jot thoughts down; or do any of the previous exercises.
By physically moving our bodies into new locations, even if it’s just sitting in a different spot in the conference room or the chair that you never sit in, easily allows the brain to see ideas, problems and challenges in new light.
If you sit at your desk for 40 hours a week, you’ll come up with the same ideas over and over. But going outside or sitting in an empty office or taking your notebook with you when you go get your $17 lunch salad increases the chances of you uncovering that great idea you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Whatever your work style, remember: Ideation and creation can happen at any time, in even the smallest windows of time. Dedicating yourself to using that sliver of precious time to noodle and doodle, all without any self-judgment will ensure your ideas will not only be stronger and more delightfully unconventional, but you’ll have a wider gamut to choose from once Brenda takes out her No sword and slices your first idea into a thousand pieces.