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065: What if you don't have an idea?
A framework for enhancing creativity and entrepreneurship + more creativity and AI
To paraphrase Paul Orfalea who founded Kinko’s, a line of people is a signal there’s a potential idea. Back in 1968, a line of college students waiting to pay to use a photocopier sparked his idea which FedEx eventually bought for $2.4B.
So what other signals might be out there, suggesting we dig in? The stereotype of creativity argues the mighty idea comes as a surprise, a bolt from the unknown. But the business of creativity makes it clear: There’s daily (if not hourly) hard work to be done—much of it looking for, and evaluating signals.
Monday night marked session #2 of the Leading Creative Projects: Networking, Incubation and Acceleration course within the Creative Entrepreneurship program at MCAD. We dipped back into a brief history of entrepreneurialism (is it safe to anoint Croesus, King of Lydia, as Entrepreneur Numero Uno since he seems to have invented money?). But our primary focus was to prove a point: “There is no singular definition of an entrepreneur. Each of you will work to define your own.”
And therefore each student will define their own Creative Project, which they’ll pitch at the culmination of the course on November 27. So last night was also the beginning of the journey to identify an idea.
And as you can imagine, some students already had an idea they want to build a ten-slide presentation around, but most did not.
I write about creativity. I use words like “oozing.” If that’s your thing, please subscribe—it’s free.
Most of us don’t have ideas oozing out of us
If you do have an abundance of ideas, lucky you. Now your challenge is staying organized and energized.
But this post is for those of us who sometimes don’t have a clear idea or perhaps have an inkling, but lack enthusiasm. In other words, what do you do if you don’t have an idea?
Over the years I’ve found a framework (primarily espoused by Seth Godin, and practiced within the altMBA) which helps on at least two fronts. It could also be interpreted and used as a form of creative briefing. For those of us with an inkling of an idea, the framework serves to validate and strengthen concepts—and gives them a foundation for the important tasks to come. But if you’re a complete blank slate, this same framework can be used in reverse to serve as a process for identifying signals and give you a methodology from which ideas can begin to appear.
First, we ask…
🤔 WHO'S IT FOR?
When you think about an idea, who do you picture using it, engaging with it, liking it, needing it, advocating for it? In other words, can you describe the optimal audience/user of your idea?
DEMOGRAPHICS: What sex, ethnicity, age are they? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What did they study in school? Are they married? Help us understand their life stage, circumstances, and context within all potential audiences.
PSYCHOGRAPHICS: What motivates this type of person—to work, to relax, to socialize? What's their favorite type of food? What was the last movie they recommended or book they read? Who do they ❤️👍🏽 on social media? In other words, can you articulate personality or behavior as it relates to your idea? Are we talking about someone who is bored, happy, frustrated, surprised, suspicious?
MOMENTGRAPHICS: “People like us use ideas like this.” When, where and what creates the most favorable setting for this specific person to need or use or consider your idea? How might this scenario change versus the average population; what makes the moment distinct and noteworthy?
KEY TAKEAWAY: Every idea exists for someone, because of someone. Successful entrepreneurs know exactly who their idea is for, and how their idea effects and interacts with a specific behavior.
EXTRA TAKEAWAY—IF YOU DON’T YET HAVE AN IDEA: You can use “Who’s It For" first, to help you generate ideas. For example, let’s say you see a long line of people. Clearly, they are willing to queue, to wait for something. Why? For what? Do those people look similar? How so? What’s their context? There might be an idea worth waiting for. Paul Orfalea thought so.
Write down demographic details. Paint a picture of a type of audience. Or summarize the psychographic qualities of a situation, or a character. Perhaps you witnessed a specific moment which could elicit an idea. The key with all three of these approaches is salient detail—describe something others want to hear more about. If you can tell a story people stick around for, you’re likely on to something. You’re on track to finding an idea.
Then we ask…
🤔 WHAT'S IT FOR?
A hammer typically exists to punch nails into materials. But a hammer can also pry open something that’s stuck. Or help shape a surface. Or a hammer could be a weapon. What’s a hammer for?
What need, or problem, or situation, does your idea address? It may be atypical, or surprising. And the more specific you can be in defining What’s It For?, the better. Especially if you want to scale. Nebulous description resists growth.
If you don’t have an idea yet, this question can be very helpful. Look for complaints, bad reviews, frustration. Those are signals an audience seeks a solution. Your idea could be that solution.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Successful entrepreneurs have very specific definitions of “What’s It For?” They do not say, “my idea makes people happy—that’s what it’s for…happiness!” A broad emotion is too general and could apply to almost any idea. Instead, they have thought hard and done lots of work to be able to say, “my idea solves a distinct problem which results in a specific change in behavior.”
Of course, we’ll eventually have to address originality.
Creativity + AI Updates
🌎 I’m way too US-centric. So I really appreciated Communication Arts pointing me to Madhurima Kar’s 2-part summary of AI use by agencies in APAC. Here’s Part 1. And Part 2. As Sanket Audhi notes, AI ushers in, “a realm where agencies wield an entirely fresh arsenal of creative processes.” For example, “generative AI has helped us imagine a time when cameras didn't exist.”
Of course, “The amount of change AI will bring to creative advertising will be directly proportional to the willingness of change we want it to bring in,” says Mayuresh Dubhashi.
But we should remember we’ve been here before. As one of the interviewees notes, “In the year 2018, Lexus released an advertisement completely scripted by AI. The company used IBM Watson, an AI system, to analyse 15 years of award-winning car ads. Watson identified which elements of successful ads resonated most with audiences. That was just the beginning.”
🙋🏽 Last week I attended an Applied AI for Product Management workshop. I’m mildly convinced when we humans discuss AI we should always do so in person. Lots to learn from body language! I think we had 15 people in the room—with a range of skills and perspective. Observations: Big corps are both embracing lots of experimentation and locking down access to generative tools... Uncertainty is common; time to get comfortable with that... No one is an expert across the entire AI spectrum… There’s way too much opportunity to keep track of it all.
📝 Meanwhile, specific use cases for AI arrive daily. David Pierce at The Verge has been experimenting with Google’s NotebookLM, and asks, “What if you could have a conversation with your notes?” Pierce is, “increasingly convinced that a personalized AI, trained on all the stuff I care about and very little else, is going to be a seriously powerful thing.” I concur. Sign up for NotebookLM here. I did. Also, Google’s Duet AI (think virtual assistant across Google apps) became generally available yesterday. They suggest, “A last-minute request that once called for an all-nighter, can now be completed before dinner time.”
🤖 And OpenAI just released ChatGPT Enterprise. As The Neuron reports, this is kind of a really big deal, “because it’s one step closer to integrating AI into the core operations of every company.”
I remain convinced knowledge management is where all the valuable AI transformation will occur short term.
🎓 And as schools begin anew: “I would advise students to become AI literate. Be flexible, imaginative and brave.” This, from Dr Andrew Rogoyski, at the Institute for People-Centred Artificial Intelligence at the University of Surrey.