Need to Pivot? 3 Strategies for Busting Out of a Creative Rut or Impending Doom

Writer's Block, Creative Ruts, and Impending Doom

It happens whether we admit it or not - we get stuck.  We fall into a rut where everything we produce or generate seems stale or sounds exactly the same (cough Nickelback, cough cough, Linkin Park).  We feel as if our life's work or that huge project we have been working on for the past year is doomed to fail horrifically.

"Interested? Very Interested? or Very Interested?"

"Interested? Very Interested? or Very Interested?"

Most of the time, these creative ruts aren't anything to lose sleep over, but if you are a startup executive or entrepreneur, being stuck or caught up in a situation where your competitors are out innovating you may threaten your company's very existence.

Although I do not advocate diverging into a venture that "gets you rats, stat", I do recommend applying the following strategies for busting out of conceptual ruts, staleness, and existential crisis and into creativity, novelty, and thriving.

Consistency of Thought is the Detriment to Innovation

In 1985, Allan W. Wicker published an article for the American Psychologist  titled "Getting Out of Our Conceptual Ruts: Strategies for Expanding Conceptual Frameworks."  In it he describes how we often become constrained by the recurrence of thought.  In other words, we get caught up on our original ideas, and even become trapped by them; firmly latching on to them and being unwilling to consider alternatives.

This is bad. Very bad.  Especially for startups and entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depend on innovating and bringing new technologies and services to market.  Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, even goes as far as saying that consistency of thought is not a positive trait.  One must constantly attempt to contradict and revise one's ideas in order to be successful and create new value.  

Peter Drucker, the OG of all things management and entrepreneurial leadership, often wrote about how the leading cause of failure in entrepreneurial ventures was being too vision-driven (i.e. becoming too fixated on the original vision and mission of the founder) rather than being market-driven. Many talented startup teams and early-stage ventures fail miserably simply because they do not consistently and systematically explore alternative, and more viable opportunities to better fit the market.

Lucky for us creative, Wicker outlines four simple, yet often overlooked and not put into practice, strategies for busting out of creative ruts.

4 Simple Strategies for Busting Out of Creative Ruts

Strategy #1: Play with Ideas 

Exploring ideas with a whimsical attitude is a great way to generate new alternatives.  Play is shown to help break frames, expose issues in a non-threatening way, and is inherently rewarding in and of itself.

Positive, playful mood states have been scientifically shown to increase cognitive flexibility. This strategy may be particularly useful for entrepreneurs and startup teams who are highly intrinsically driven by their mission and work.  Matthijs Baas and colleagues, in a meta-analysis of 66 research papers on mood and creativity, found evidence that suggested that when a task is framed as enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding, positive moods are associated with higher levels of creative performance.

  • Sub-Strategy 1a: Select and Apply Metaphors - Playing with metaphors can elicit new perspectives on a problem and may help one gain a deeper awareness of the complexities and subtleties in current and potential markets.  Metaphors can be leveraged to help break out of stale frames and into new ones that may offer greater opportunity. For example, what metaphors can you apply to your current persona, target market, or even your own product/service that may shed light on new alternative innovative pathways? 
    • For example, do your customers operate in a organizational or industry that is like a "jungle" - filled with politicking and driven by power and influence? Or do your customers operate within a "family"- an environment driven by love, trust, helping, and reciprocity? What other customers and target markets fit the profile of operating in a jungle or family? What other services might you offer to fill the wants and needs of your market under different metaphors?
    • For more information about applying metaphors to social situations, I recommend checking out Morgan's Images of Organization or Bolman & Deal's Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership
  • Sub-Strategy 1b: Represent Ideas Graphically -  Transform your walls into whiteboards and take advantage of this fun and effective strategy.  Visual images and sketches of problems can help people break out of the usual linear mode of thinking and presenting ideas (e.g. sentences, paragraphs, code, etc.).  Unleash your inner artist or architect and get to it.
  • Sub-Strategy 1c: Change the Scale - Go super big. Or go super small. Go to the edges of extreme on whatever criteria, demographics, or other factors that are relevant to your offering.  
    • An easy and effective way to change the scale and think of new alternatives is to change the scale of your target market's intelligence.  What might you need to do differently if your persona or market were all bonafide geniuses? What would they want from your product?  What might you need to do differently if your persona or market were all straight out of the movie Idiocracy?  What might need to be done differently in terms of design, delivery, or marketing?
  • Sub-Strategy 1d: Attend to Process - It can be quite useful to examine presumably stable concepts in dynamic terms, and vice versa.  Are your assuming that your potential customer is unchanging? Or are you predicting how your customer's lifecycle and development might impact her purchasing and engagement behaviors?

Strategy #2: Consider Contexts

Similar to "change the scale," one strategy involves placing specific problems in a larger domain.  This strategy works well when one is trying to branch out or extend one's offerings or venture into new markets.  The goal is to map out the broader domain of which an existing product/service is only a part.  For example, many wearables and personal technology apps started out in the context of healthcare, but as we all know, the extension of these technologies have successfully made their way into the everyday lifestyles of a broader consumer market.  We now might even be seeing a second penetration into the business context, with Salesforce recently announcing an initiative to bring wearables into the workplace.

Another way to consider context is to examine processes in the settings in which they naturally occur.  This usually goes without saying, and ideally you will have already done this and built your service or product around how people in the world would naturally engage with them. But sometimes we get trapped by our own mind's and latch onto a theoretical, ideal possibility that is far from how the real world actually and presently operates.

Strategy #3: Probe and Tinker with Assumptions 

We get stuck because we become constrained by our assumptions - our assumptions about how we should work, what our offering should be, or by what we think others want and need.  Probing and tinkering with these assumptions can really stimulate thinking in very productive directions.

  • Sub-Strategy 3a: Expose Hidden Assumptions- Our assumptions may be so deeply ingrained that we never be truly able to identify or shed them all, but striving for awareness of them is the first step towards altering them.  One way to become aware of assumptions is to juxtapose opposing elements from competing perspectives.  For example, we may juxtapose and analyze with the two competing theories: 1) that workers are intrinsically motivated by engaging work and challenge, and 2) that workers are motivated by extrinsic rewards and desire money and fame.  Both may be valid to varying extents, but examining the underlying assumptions of each and comparing and contrasting them can help bring to bear new insights into how to motivate your employees most effectively.
    • One of the most common ways of doing this is to play devil's advocate; to make the opposite assumption. 
    • Another approach is to simultaneously trust and doubt the same assumption.  This technique can be used to introduce flexibility and ambivalence into your conceptual framework.

Main Takeaway

Play with new ideas, even if they seem completely outrageous.  Have fun doing it, and enjoy the process of brainstorming new ideas and concepts.  The bottom-line is that you learn more effectively when you have fun and are encouraged to look at things from new perspectives when doing so.

Shift contexts. What would X look like under different circumstance? How would people from A, B, C engage with your product? How might they want to change it to better suit their needs?

Become aware of your assumptions and the assumptions of those on your team.  Identify them, then deliberately transform them to explore new possibilities.

Now what?

Be sure to subscribe to newsletter for more tips to boost your creativity.  If you are in drastic need of busting out of your creative rut, perhaps I can help! Check out my coaching services and see if there might be a good fit.  If you are part of a team that needs some serious help, think about using team coaching to help ignite your team creativity.