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The Beauty of Blue Sky Thinking (And why we find it so hard)

Posted on November 13th, 2015 by in Chemical R&D


We’ve all been in those meetings. The ones where we’re trying to be “creative”. Everyone sits in a circle and comes up with idea after idea after idea. We’re told that “anything goes”, that we should “just shout out any idea we think of” and that “there’s no such thing as a bad idea”. It’s Blue Sky thinking, where we’re supposed to capture absolutely every idea, no matter whether it’s good, bad, relevant or absolutely absurd. This is just about capturing ideas, and anything goes.

Sometimes people get really into it, while sometimes they’re a little more reserved. But in every Blue Sky thinking session, especially one with engineers or scientists in the room, this will eventually happen.

You know what I mean.

Someone will come out with the most ridiculous, impractical and sometimes downright impossible idea.

It’ll be too much. Even though you’re trying really hard to let everything go and just to focus on new ideas, one will finally hit you with everything that’s wrong with it. And once you’re in that mindset, it’s very difficult to get back. Especially so when the ideas your listening to continue to get worse and worse. Bad ideas breed bad ideas, it seems.

I love the idea of Blue Sky thinking, but I really struggle with the way it’s often done. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

The Beauty Of Blue Sky

This type of thinking can be a brilliant way of getting moving with ideas. Where there’s often a tendency to come up with one idea then stop to check it, filter it and see if it’s the right solution, Blue Sky thinking encourages us to just focus on the process of generating ideas. Once we’re freed from the habit of evaluating everything that’s on the table before moving on, it becomes possible to get into a sort of flow, where ideas just keep on coming.

The “flow” effect is often amplified when we’re doing this with someone else. Listening to someone else’s ideas and thoughts can be a great catalyst for generating new ideas of your own. That’s the idea behind Blue Sky thinking, and I whole-heartedly subscribe to the theory that this can be an effective way of coming up with innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Why It’s Especially Hard For Technical Minds

Getting into that state of “flow” can be really tricky though. In so much of what most of us do, there’s a huge advantage in being critical. It’s good to evaluate everything, to stop and make sure we’ve got everything right. And so, a lot of us have become trained to monitor and evaluate everything around us.

While that’s certainly not a bad thing, it is something we’ll need to overcome if we’re going to be able to get into a flow of creating ideas and innovative solutions. We need to learn to take off our evaluator hats and to just focus on creating solutions.

Is There A Better Way?

In my experience, more often than not, formal Blue Sky thinking sessions are organized by people who are not doing a technical-focused job day-to-day. They tend to be in managerial positions and at least one step removed from the front line technical work. And so they set up these types of sessions because that’s what will work for them. But that often isn’t what will work for everyone else.

When I’ve been able to get into a creative flow and to really do Blue Sky thinking, instead of berating the stupid ideas that are aired (albeit usually only in my head), I’ve usually been in small groups with people of a similar technical ability. Working with one or two other people who understand at least the basics of what we’re talking about instantly removes a lot of the distractions of a typical Blue Sky session and, for me at least, makes everything much more productive.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about Blue Sky thinking, and what type of setting helps you to get into that creative flow of generating ideas most easily?

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