Why Old Thinking Won’t Lead to New Ideas

When you really need new ideas, fresh thinking or a creative solution to a challenge, a typical, day-to-day approach in your thinking is not the optimal process. Using the same old thinking will simply lead you to the same old ideas. Instead, you need to do something different—something that will stimulate your brain in diverse ways and shift your perspective on the issues.

Here are five ways to ensure you (and your team) shake up your thinking so that you actually come up with the fresh, new ideas you need.

1. Change your environment

Get outside your own conference room or office. Debrief the latest research results or industry report in an art museum. Or, take your team to the zoo with the objective of returning with new ideas. Depending on what part of the country you are in, find an inspirational place to curate new ideas.

If you cannot physically get out of the office, find a way to get out metaphorically. Ask people to imagine how they would solve the problem-at-hand if they lived in Antarctica, or if viewed from the perspective of a submarine captain.

2. Bring outsiders in

Overtly invite other perspectives into your discovery and idea generation processes. For example, for a project on new packaging and product ideas for a beverage company, invite a boat designer, a rain-water management expert, a sculptor and a water-park designer (among others).

Your project team will be amazed at the range and diversity of new ideas that come when they are exposed to new perspectives on their challenge. They will think of ideas they will agree they never would have arrived at on their own— due to their own embedded assumptions about the topic.

3. Truly engage with your customers

Don’t rely on second-hand data to understand your customers’ needs. You need to actually talk to them. Go to their homes or offices to see the problems they need solutions for. All too often, teams seeking an idea generation project will say, “We don’t need to do any discovery in advance because we already have ‘lots of data.”‘

This should always make you wary, because it usually means they have numerous reports with reams of statistics about customers.

Unfortunately, it rarely means they have discovered any real new insight into customer needs. If you are expecting your team to understand the customer by reading a deck or attending a PowerPoint presentation, challenge yourself to find a more engaging and interactive process. It will be far more effective to immerse your team in real customer understanding.

4. Question everything

Do some specific exercises that force people to confront and challenge their subconscious assumptions about the topic. An easy way to do this is to first ask for ideas that the team thinks would solve the problem, but they probably could not implement for some reason.

Then, ask them to reframe each idea by saying, “We might be able to implement this idea If…” What behind the “ifs” will help surface a lot of assumptions people have that may or may not actually be barriers.

Using the same old thinking will simply lead you to the same old ideas. Instead, you need to do something different—something that will stimulate your brain in diverse ways and shift your perspective on the issues.

Of course, some of the barriers will turn out to be real, in which case, do not spend more time on those ideas. But in every case that I have ever done this with client teams, they also discover many supposed barriers that they could actually solve for.

5. Let some crazy in the room

The academic definition of creative thinking is “the process of coming up with new and useful ideas.” The only way to get new ideas is to start with seemingly crazy ideas. Every truly innovative idea seems a little crazy at first. If you only start with ideas that are comfortable or clearly easy to implement, they probably are not very new.

So, encourage people to throw in extremely wild ideas. Then, play a game called “If We Could.” Instruct the team to temporarily let go of the problems in the idea and ask “If we could implement this idea, what would be the benefit(s)?”

Once you have identified the benefits of each crazy idea, narrow down to the most promising few and ask the team to look for possible solutions to the barriers.

A team was on the verge of killing a truly original idea for a new kids’ cereal, because they did not know how to create the component critical. But after “If we could,” they agreed the idea was so interesting and unique that they needed to explore it. The R&D team made a few calls to other experts, and within a few weeks, they had solved it. This idea resulted in the most successful new product launch in the brand’s history.

It is unfortunately all too easy to simply approach every new challenge using our typical day to day thinking. It feels familiar, it’s easy to access that type of thinking, and it works on most daily challenges. So, you subconsciously assume it will work on any challenge.

But it is incredibly helpful to do some meta-analysis on your thinking, ie, think about how you are thinking. Not every problem will benefit from the same type of thinking. Once you recognize that this new situation needs new thinking, it’s fairly easy to do some things to shift to a more productive mode for this particular challenge.

Then, shift back to the more familiar day to day thinking for your daily tasks.


Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change, by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?” She is a creative thinking expert with more than 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, Robertson brings a scientific foundation to enhance human creativity. To learn more, CLICK HERE.


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