Where Ideas Come From

Innovation starts with a culture of creativity.

Where do ideas come from?

Or a better question: Where do good ideas come from? And why do we need to know?

Charles Lee has spent years guiding leaders toward innovation, and he knows it’s both more complex and simpler than you think.

A former church planter, Lee is the founder and CEO of Ideation, an idea-execution consulting company. He speaks and blogs about ideation, creativity and compassionate justice. He is also the author of Good Idea. Now What? How to Move Ideas to Execution.

“I’m assuming that most pastors want to be creative and innovative and push their people along in terms of their mission,” says Lee. “But I know, having gone through Christian education, that this is not an area most leaders are prepared for.”

HOW TO MAKE AN IDEA

What is ideation, anyway? Why do we need new ideas? And if we do, how do we foster innovation in the church space?

Ideation is a fancy word for idea-making. The dictionary defines it as the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas. To brew a new concept by smashing up two or more unrelated things.

More broadly, Lee and others in the business-development and design industries use the term to encompass the whole process—from conception to implementation: identifying the “why” of your goal; understanding and empathizing with your audience; then researching, brainstorming, choosing an idea, prototyping it, testing it, revising it and launching it.

MYTH AND MISCONCEPTIONS

Creativity often comes with a few myths we need to dispel.

Have you ever thought something like this? “I’m just not very creative.” “Creative people are different from everyone else.” “Brilliant ideas come from solitary geniuses whose brains and gifts are in a stratosphere somewhere above the rest of us mundane muddlers.”

Or, here are a few other common misconceptions: “Good ideas should just come naturally, you know?” “Go with the flow, Joe.” “Creativity doesn’t happen if you try to structure it.” “Just do it!”

These misconceptions ignore a few facts, the most obvious being that all humans are fashioned in the image of the Creator. Yes, some people are born with a propensity toward brilliant inventiveness. But our model isn’t Leonardo da Vinci, a once-in-a-millennium phenomenon. Each of us has the potential in various degrees to be creative.

And yes, the solitary flash of inspiration can occur. Psychologists say that such aha moments are the culmination of many factors, some of them not obvious. Life experiences, knowledge, emotions, a period of thought incubation, distance and then, bam! You wake in the middle of the night with the proverbial light bulb hanging over your head.

As to structure, all the experts point to the limitless power of creativity’s collective potential.

“Want to stack the odds in your favor? Here’s a little secret that the most effective idea makers use to their advantage: A good grasp of intentional strategy can actually increase your odds when it comes to the latter—the favor of chance,” writes Lee in his book.

Whatever the challenge, a successful solution is more likely to be devised when multiple minds work together. Remember what your grandmother said: Two heads [or more] are better than one.

Beyond these common fallacies, it’s not hard to find within the church arena an attitude of slight (or overt) suspicion toward innovation and change. Lee understands the “we’ve always done it that way” stance. There’s often an unwritten code of cultural boundaries. Coupled with that is the reality of limited resources. Where to put your time and money? Should you help a hungry immigrant family or fund a brainstorming session?

Also, pastors might feel the expectation to come up with all the grand ideas—and also feel the dread of trying out something new and failing.

“There’s a pressure to be right, as successful leaders,” says Lee, “because you are kind of a representative of God all the time, right? But the nature of innovation is you’re going to make mistakes, possibly the majority of time.”

CULTURE CLASH

What we’re leading up to is this: the need to create a church culture open to innovation, empowerment and experimentation.

“It has to start on top,” says Lee. Fostering an organizational culture that is open to disruptive changes (which is what good ideas are) “needs buy-in that must come from the highest level of leadership.”

Otherwise, would-be champions of change have no authority to act on good ideas. Momentum is lost. Vision dies.

And it’s not a matter of hiring a millennial hipster for a creative director position or even just packing the staff with super imaginative people, either.

“You might have a creative voice on a team. But if that person doesn’t have authority within the ministry to make decisions to impact the culture, they’ll feel ostracized or not essential to the success of the ministry,” Lee says.

He points to the business world as an example. “You can see this in companies. For a long time they had positions like chief innovation officer. But studies are showing that innovation is not a department—it’s a cultural commitment.”

How does the top leadership develop its cultural commitment, then?

“I would encourage them to get out of their own bubble,” says Lee. “Going to networking meetings outside of a ministry vocational space, or going to a conference that’s not pastoral or even Christian in nature, can help you see how others are solving problems and creating solutions.”

Getting outside help, such as from a church consultant or creative advisor, might be a great first step. But the bottom line is a top leader must not only understand the value of the whole ideation process, it also must become a priority and a sustainable part of the church or organization’s DNA.

THE PROCESS

What, then, is the ideation process? Simple. It’s like envisioning a castle in the sky and then building a bridge to it.

Methods abound. Lee summarizes the steps as ideation, brainstorming and conceptualization. A more detailed description, often labeled as “design thinking,” lists these phases.

• Empathize: understanding the needs, settings, circumstances and characteristics of the people you’re trying to reach. It’s street level, not abstract. It requires your team to observe, engage and listen.

• Define: synthesizing what you’ve learned with the goal of drafting a statement of the problem or challenge you’re trying to come up with an idea to address.

• Ideate: the step people think of when they hear “idea generating.” It’s the fuel for the rest of the phases. All possibilities on the table, without reservation or judgment, followed by selective filtering.

• Prototype: quick creation of the idea in a tangible mode, whether storyboarding, roleplaying or sketching out.

• Test: taking the prototype for a drive to solicit feedback from your likely “customers,” followed by refining, repositioning, even restarting the process.

The steps of this process are in a list, but that’s misleading. Idea-generating methods are not linear. You’ll need to rinse and repeat many times.

Lee describes phases after brainstorming as validation, refining and cutting, followed by reflection on overall program goals before implementation. He is a proponent of writing ideas down, because if you only talk about them, it tricks your brain into thinking you’re making progress. A written form forces you to focus and refine. It also is a touch point, a reference in time you can return to.

For inspiration, it is OK to steal—from other churches or Christian organizations; from books, blogs, social media, news media and conferences; from history. (Prayer is assumed, of course.)

Be childlike. Remember how it was? When you were little, you submitted joyfully to the moment, exploring, trying things out, experimenting. Seeing things as if for the first time. Do that again.

Obstacles to the process? Not giving enough time to the process. Not having a designated facilitator or being weak on structure. Self-censure (google Seth Godin’s video, “Quieting the Lizard Brain”) and fear of creative resistance. Maybe the worst is negative group dynamics. And after the sessions, if there is no follow-up, measurement and accountability, the idea dies on the vine.

“Every idea needs a healthy interrogation and a plan,” Lee says.

GETTING PHYSICAL

In his book, Lee writes, “Many undermine the importance of where an idea is formed. The physical space that surrounds us fuels our creativity and enhances our ability to see and feel what it is we are trying to form. This doesn’t mean that we have to be in the coolest space to create, but rather, we must be mindful of pursuing the kind of space that will position our physical bodies toward receiving the best and more relevant experiences related to our passions.”

For example, always see the street view of your ideas. “Stay close to the people. The ideas will benefit and work in the environment where the idea making will happen,” says Lee.

Inside the office, make a visual commitment to reinforcing the creative culture. For example, “some companies have actual creativity centers—they can be virtual online or a physical space or even just how you name some meeting rooms.” Other ideas: a wall outlining the creative process of a current project, Post-it notes and prototypes included. Whiteboards everywhere.

Foster nonstop learning. It leads to innovation. Don’t settle for expertise, because it’s usually 10 years behind the times.

Create a sense of the need to learn, says Lee, using these three steps.

• Create space for the unfamiliar. Take yourself and your team (if you have one) to unfamiliar spaces that will heighten your need to engage new ideas.

• Revisit the problem you’re trying to solve. Regularly go back and reconsider why you’re producing what you’re producing.

• Humble yourself and welcome outside perspective. The reality is that all of us are faking it on some level. Just admit it. We all could use some help. Take the time and resources to invest in your work. Outside voices will save you thousands of dollars as well as countless moments of unnecessary heartache.

NEXT STEPS

Now that you’ve got a great idea, it’s time to put it in motion. Lee writes, “The reality is that ideas alone can’t change anything. Ideas need smart infrastructure, processes for implementation and a team committed to creating a viable launch. A comprehensive understanding of the overall process of idea-making and actionable next steps are central to innovating ideas and bringing them to life.”

A danger: It can be easier to become addicted to inspiration and exploration—an endless brainstorming. There is no magical shortcut from idea to implementation. At some point you have to do the heavy lifting.

“Passion without an actionable plan will eventually end up in the grave,” he says.

The strategy must be intentional, sustainable, scalable and surrounded by accountability. In his book, a chapter discusses using a business-plan model for practical direction and infrastructure.

What if you viewed your ideas as a trust? Remember, you are creative because God has made you that way. And why? All good ideas are from him, and that fact requires of us an attitude of stewardship.

Your idea-making, after all, is for him, right?

Learn more about ideation at OutreachMagazine.com/ideation-resources.