The Creative Crush: Five Warning Signs of Idea Infatuation

One of the risks of traditional “free-for-all” brainstorming is a form of groupthink known as Idea Infatuation.

Infatuation means to “inspire with a foolish or unreasoning passion.” Idea infatuation is what happens when someone falls in love with an idea at first sight and proceeds to lust after that idea with an all-consuming desire that scorns all other suitors–despite demonstrable evidence.

Just like falling in love, a creative crush can feel really good. Often the ideas we become infatuated have some sort of sex appeal. They might have a stunning visual tie-in, or perhaps a witty tagline. Often they involve satisfying alliteration, a handy acrostic or, perhaps, a perfect rhyme. Or these days, an awesome hashtag.

In this way, these ideas appear to be heaven-sent. But most of the time, these ideas come to us quickly because they were simply more convenient. Chances are, the subject of your infatuation is a cliché, an oversimplification or some form of stereotype. But because they appear “perfect” they often engender extreme loyalty, particularly among those who were struck by Idea Cupid’s arrow.

This is where things get a bit tricky. True strategic insights also come with certainty that inspires action. How do you know if you’ve hit on a strategic insight and not just some idea floozy out to distract you from the real deal? Looks for these signs:

  1. The idea comes very quickly.

Ideas that seem obvious, probably are. Idea infatuation tempts us to stop the ideation process prematurely by offering easy solutions to complex problems. Even if the idea has merit, don’t take the bait. Strategic insights often come after serious consideration.

  1. The idea becomes the only option.

Idea infatuation blinds us from seeing other concepts as viable options. All of the sudden, that idea is the only possible solution. Integrative thinking relies on adductive logic, or the ability to see new concepts based on the combination of multiple possible solutions. Idea infatuation is like a crazy stalker, while strategic insights play the field.

  1. The idea has no weaknesses.

When we’re infatuated, we overlook the faults in the object of our affection. The same thing happens with Idea Infatuation. You know you’re infatuated with an idea when despite new information or evidence, you still perceive your idea to be complete or perfect.

  1. The idea begins to give less and less.

Creative crushes seem awesome at first, but when placed under a critical evaluation process it becomes harder and harder to justify them. As they say in the ad biz, they don’t have “legs.” If you find yourself forcing connections or stretching metaphors, you’re probably flirting with the wrong idea.

  1.    There is fear and anxiety around losing the idea.

Folks who become infatuated with ideas quickly develop codependent behaviors. They start to get defensive about the concept, resisting improvement and insisting that they can make it work. If they feel the momentum shifting against the idea, they become even more adamant in their professions of love for their crush.

If you see these warning signs, it’s time for an idea intervention. One way to break the spell of idea infatuation is to use a technique I call Headstand. Take the current idea and consider it’s exact opposite, then consider it’s total extreme. Perspective shifting, lateral thinking exercises like this can often expose the weaknesses of a skin-deep concept and open a team to new avenues of exploration. Don’t be surprised if it takes some effort to consciously uncouple the group from the idea.

After all, breaking up is hard to do.

The Ben Folds Five-Point Critique

Criticism is difficult for most people to receive, even from the most trusted and respected sources. Yet constructive criticism is essential to creative collaboration, idea evaluation and successful innovation. Learning to deliver feedback effectively can be the difference between building consensus and destroying team morale.

If you want to see what effective, even inspiring, constructive criticism looks like, look no further than Ben Folds. Yes, that Ben Folds. As a judge on the ABC series, The Sing-Off,  and in a recent guest appearance on American Voices with Renee Fleming, Ben Folds doesn’t just give a master class in musicality–he’s offering lessons in effective critique. When Ben Folds finishes his analysis, people never look defeated–they look determined to try again. How does he do it?

Handout/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images


The Ben Folds Five-Point Critique 

1. Honor the Intention

The first thing Ben always does is express an authentic form of gratitude for getting the opportunity to experience the talent of a performer. He honors their courage and intention in sharing their gift.

2. Provide a Broader Perspective

Drawing on his own experience as performer, Ben often offers a broader perspective that takes his feedback out of the context of the specific performance and frames the critique as an opportunity to develop a skill that can be utilized in other situations–subtlety enhancing the value of the offered information.

3. Give Specific Insight Based on Expertise

This part is essential. Ben Folds is not offering just vague opinions, he is offering expertise steeped in a knowledge of the field he is critiquing. His feedback is precise and specific, therefore, more credible.

4. Partner For the Solution

Ben will often include a challenge to his critiquee. “Try it like this…” or “Experiment with this…” These sort of thought-starters show shared vulnerability and a service-orientation to the feedback that develops a sense of partnership with the receiver.

5. Demonstrate Empathy

It’s hard not to love Ben Folds, who might be the closest thing we have to a Muppet in human form. But it’s not just his “aw-shucks” authenticity that makes people receptive to his feedback. He often wraps his critiques in personal anecdotes or humor that help people connect with him–transforming him from judge to friend.

So what does the Ben Folds Five-Point Critique looks like in the real world? Use the following script as an example.

“John, thanks for sharing that idea–it’s fascinating to understand the accounting department’s perspective on the problem. I feel like overall this isn’t just a payroll issue, but possibly a communications challenge. When I worked in PR, we always learned that in a crisis, it’s best to get out in front of the story, that way we could frame the narrative. So here, maybe a good approach could be to send out a quick alert telling everyone you know there’s an issue and a solution is actively being worked on. This kind of thing happened to me once around a news story. I found if I beat the reporters to the punch—I sort of took the wind out of their sails.”

This technique might just seem like an advanced “compliment sandwich”, but it doesn’t rely on false flattery to help people choke down harsh criticism. Instead it’s a five-layer dip of trust-building goodness. Next time you have an opportunity to just blurt out your opinion, just ask yourself WWBFD instead.



The Unexpected Secret to Maintaining Creative Energy

iknowthatvoiceWe’ve all experienced it. A group is effectively collaborating, tossing ideas back and forth like ping-pong balls when a self-appointed devil’s advocate throws a “bad idea” bomb. Right then, all the energy leaves the room. People put their walls back up and the sharing stops. As a former grenade launcher, I’ve been an eyewitness to many of these levity letdowns but it wasn’t until I became a facilitator that I realized what was actually happening.

In the documentary, I Know That Voice!, legendary voice actors talk about their craft, their creative process and their community. The film, available now on Netflix, includes scenes of voice directors talking about how they get great work out of these great talents. At one point, voice director Charlie Adler gives his perspective on doing line readings for his actors.

“Part of what makes the work so thrilling is not squashing the energy in the room, keeping the actors engaged, excited and spontaneous while balancing what needs to happen in the room…without anyone feeling dishonored.”

Charlie Adler
Voice Actor and Director

And right there, out of the mouth of the Hamburgler,  is the secret to maintaining creative energy. Honor. You don’t have to think the idea is a keeper to honor the intention or to honor the person offering the idea. Ideas are gifts. Offering an idea is a moment of vulnerability and risk. We should receive them with gratitude, creating a safe space for them, even if, upon later evaluation, we might choose to, um, regift them.

Recently, I started to include a blank sheet of paper in my Brainshower workshop folders. At the beginning of the session I have everyone wad up the paper into a ball. They are then instructed that whenever someone dishonors them in the session, they are allowed to lob the paper ball in that direction. It’s a not-so-subtle message to the naysayers in the room to pour some of that cold water in their bucket into their half-empty glasses instead.