What Softball Can Teach Us About Innovative Thinking

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In a recent softball game, I was playing center field. This was unusual, because most of the time, I play second base. I prefer my usual position because it generally requires my reacting quickly to balls hit on the ground, and either throwing to first base or to the shortstop covering second.  Playing in the outfield is very different. Sure, sometimes I’m backing up an infielder and getting a ground ball in to the infield, but more often, I’m trying to line up under a fly ball, trying to estimate from its trajectory where it’s going to come down. Anyone who has ever played outfield knows that it is much easier for an outfielder to play deep and come in to get a fly ball than it is to be playing shallow and have to back up to get to it.

I was recently thinking about these two concepts: switching positions to gain a new perspective, and knowing enough to back up and see all of the possible trajectories that the ball could take, right up until the ball is hit, at which point one can then close in on where the ball is headed.

I realized that similarly, when trying to solve a big challenge, it is helpful to look at it from a new perspective, and then back up and think as expansively as possible, without worrying about all of the constraints.  This allows us to remain curious and generate some wild and crazy ideas (some of which we may realize are not so crazy after all), and then narrowing them down to the ones that might just be feasible.

Maybe the softball analogy is a little bit of a stretch, but changing perspectives (or switching positions), and engaging in the thought experiment of temporarily removing constraints (things like budget, personnel, and political considerations) does help us to think more creatively. It's really hard to be innovative when new ideas get immediately shut down with comments like, "We don't have the budget for this" or "our board would never agree to that."

We all know what those constraints are, and I'm not suggesting we ignore them; only that we name them and put them aside in order to engage in this exercise without those constraints getting in the way of creativity.

To come up with more innovative ideas, try these steps:

  1. Be very clear about the problem you're trying to solve or the question you’re trying to answer
  2. Invite a small group of open-minded people to brainstorm with you
  3. Make sure you have a skilled facilitator for your brainstorm session
  4. Post your question or problem on a large piece of paper on the wall
  5. Name and write down all of the constraints and post them on a separate page
  6. Physically take the page with the constraints and remove it from the room
  7. Have one or two pre-selected people voice a few crazy ideas that are completely impossible, just to get the juices flowing
  8. Brainstorm together and post everything on the wall without editing
  9. Agree on the best of these ideas that you want to put forward

So, the next time you need a creative new idea and are feeling stuck, think about changing your position to gain a new perspective, thinking more expansively, and temporarily setting aside the constraints.  You might just come up with a brilliant new solution!

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