Fewer expectations can lead to more ideas

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If you’re at a restaurant and you put a child down in front of a table with a big white sheet of paper and some crayons, the inevitable happens.

The child will use the crayons and draw all over the table. They won’t let lack of ideas, fear of judgement, or rules established elsewhere (“don’t draw on the table”) prevent them from happily doodling away. In-fact: what often happens is the adults, given a crayon at the same table, will often doodle too.

Yet sit an adult down in a meeting or class room with a big whiteboard and some markers, then ask them to come up with ideas for solving an important problem and… they’ll stare at the wall.

When our expectations are simple and judgement doesn’t really matter, making is easy. It’s putting the color to the canvas or scribbling until the lines remind us of something else. But when our expectations are high and our job or reputation is on the line, making is a challenge.

A good way to get ideas out—to entertain yourself or to propose a new project at school or work—is to remove the parts of the process that make creation daunting. If you’re running a workshop or exercise: set the stage by making the task one about generating ideas and not instead about solving a problem. Lower expectations, better result. Not always, but more often than the alternative.

Running a brainstorm with fewer expectations and no judgement sounds like a risk when business goals, jobs, or how your peers think of you is at stake. But expecting anyone—including ourselves—to come up with ideas is a risk anyway. You might as well make the whiteboarding process or the writing exercise delightful and fun. You’ll be surprised at just how much more productive the exercise of brainstorming ideas can be when there are fewer expectations to do it right.

When the objective is simply to put color onto the canvas, you often end up with a lot of color.