How to Stop Relying on a ‘Creative Genius’ and Instead Populate a Range of Fresh Ideas

Depending on one person can lead to stagnation and uninspiring vision

Focusing on one "genius" to be the source of all ideas will stunt the company's growth. Getty Images
Headshot of Ryan Bonnici

What sets a company with visionary ideas apart from one with uninspiring ones? Why does one marketing campaign gain traction while others don’t?

Historically, it’s been considered a talent issue: If the hiring and recruiting team find the best talent, those hires will bring the big ideas. Pay a premium for creatives with a “long track record of proven results,” and watch them produce bigger, better proposals for products, features, sales and marketing campaigns.

But in my experience, poor ideation is a process problem, not a people problem. When companies have ineffective processes for ideating, they can’t produce original ideas, no matter how many “creative geniuses” are in the room. So how can companies surmount bad processes to pave the way for more effective ideation?

Abandon the “creative genius”

Better ideation begins by leveling the creative playing field. Too many companies, consciously or not, build out hierarchies of creativity in which only the creative “rock stars” are deferred to on matters of ideation. Here’s the problem with that approach: Great ideas can—and often do—come from anyone, whether that person is a marketer, a customer service representative or the office manager. But when companies make ideation the purview of the rock star, they create a climate where sharing ideas is the privilege of the few and they risk producing a creative echo chamber. That’s a recipe for stagnation, not ideation.

When companies have ineffective processes for ideating, they can’t produce original ideas, no matter how many “creative geniuses” are in the room.

This problem is replicating itself in the tech marketing industry. Want proof? Look at lists of presenters at the next five marketing conferences. How many new voices are presenting? How much diversity do you see in the group? Heck, can you find a group of newcomers presenting ideas from a different perspective? We are rarely nurturing creative thoughts with recycled industry rock stars repeating tired mantras at every event.

Diversify brainstorming sessions 

If you gather a room full of marketers to brainstorm a creative campaign, you’ll end up with a bunch of marketing-driven ideas. But bring a member of the operations or customer service teams into the fold and you’ll introduce new dimensions of creative thought. Better yet, head out of the office and find a local tour guide, a museum curator, a bartender and invite them to join.

The result will be more inventive ideas. Yet too often, ideation sessions remain department-specific, which ends up being a missed opportunity to think beyond the expected. From a leadership standpoint, those planning and managing ideation sessions should look for opportunities to pull in a diverse group from across the organization and even across the community.

Breakdown the jargon barrier 

The first principle of design thinking is empathy. You have to be able to deeply understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Empathy requires clarity; everyone needs to be on the same page from the beginning. For this reason, it’s important to make ideation a strict no jargon zone.

Companies can solve this by intentionally, but not punitively, reducing jargon. One suggestion here is to establish ideation spaces as a forum where all ideas should be articulated as if you’re explaining them to your grandmother. You wouldn’t explain a creative campaign idea to grandma by saying that it will “leverage multi-channel platforms to yield cross-industry results,” so try to keep that kind of talk outside the room.

Leave time for collective thinking

It’s common for companies to fall into a rhythm of hosting a larger group brainstorm once or twice a year. Typically, there’s some problem that needs to be resolved and the hope is that collective thinking will help find a resolution. Neither the organizers nor the attendees have had enough experience with these idea storms to know how to prepare the group. So, you have what you would expect: a loudmouth with a weak idea dominating the discussion. Nothing productive comes of the meeting.

This is why it’s essential to host these meetings on a frequent basis. Regular sessions can help creative teams come up with new content themes to execute over the coming weeks. These sessions will become more productive over time as the group gains experience ideating. They’ll know how to prepare, how to execute the meeting and, most importantly, how to produce the types of ideas the company is looking for.

To me, the steps to better ideation aren’t difficult. Leveling the creative playing field, pulling from outside your department, limiting jargon: these are intuitive moves to produce better ideas.

The hard part for companies is surmounting the entrenched processes that prevent these from happening. But it’s important to make that change, especially if your company is struggling to come up with its next big idea.

Ryan Bonnici is the chief marketing officer of G2 Crowd.