5 Ways to Out-Think Ordinary

UPDATED: August 22, 2017
PUBLISHED: August 22, 2017


“Curiosity is the spark behind the spark of every great idea. The future belongs to the curious.” —Author Unknown


The old saying that curiosity killed the cat might be true for cats, but for the rest of us, being curious, asking questions and never settling for the status quo is part of doing something great in this world. Take a minute to study the people we admire most—people who changed things for the better—and what you’ll find at their core is an undying need to know how things work, why they don’t work currently and how to go about fixing it. That process began with curiosity and ended with the lightbulb, machines that fly us around the world and lifesaving breakthroughs in medicine. Thank God for curious people.

Related: 5 Tips to Inspire an Innovative Mindset

There is also a certain amount of bravery involved in being curious and having an itch that you cannot scratch. Here’s why. Out-thinking ordinary involves risk. You could fail, right? Then what? How will you be perceived then? If a thousand people are in line doing what has always been done and you are alone in a line of one, well, that can be daunting. I am certain that Thomas Edison’s friends thought him to be a bit mad when he was so focused on inventing the lightbulb that he ignored all else and then failed more than 10,000 times. His comment about failure tells us all we need to know about him: “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Interestingly, Mr. Edison is not remembered for his failures. You won’t be either. Bringing fresh new ideas to the business table is a sure way to get yourself noticed and stand out. In fact, innovation is the No. 1 attribute CEOs look for, according to a recent IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs across 33 industries and 60 countries.

Here are five proven ways to get your idea juices flowing.

1. Be curious.

I interviewed Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop, for my new book, Women Make Great Leaders. As with all of my interviews with these successful women, Maxine taught me a valuable lesson: what it means to observe.

When Maxine and her friend Katie (10 years old at the time) were out shopping for stuffed toys, they couldn’t find what they wanted. The young friend commented that it certainly would be easy to make them, as in a craft of some sort. But what Clark heard was so much bigger… a workshop where kids could stuff and customize their own bears. From that day, she passionately pursued the idea and the first Build-A-Bear store opened in 1997 at the Saint Louis Galleria in St. Louis, Missouri. Today there are more than 400 Build-A-Bear Workshop stores worldwide.

Also in our interview, Clark used the metaphor “one bucket carries to the second bucket and then the third bucket.” It was her way of describing how one observation can fertilize an idea and then a better idea. She had recently experienced a two-minute check-in at a hotel and surmised how most any business could benefit from learning how and why the check-in went so fast. Clark calls this 1 + 1 = 10. Stepping out and working on the knowledge you have (such as it is) has great value. Sometimes people wait until they have all of the answers before moving at all. What Clark and others have taught me is that you might not start out your quest with all the answers, but they will come as you proceed and you have to trust that they will.

2. Give yourself space.

Many executives report that engaging in low-intensity activities—driving, doing the dishes, walking—helps them free associate and generate new ideas. I remember reading that Sara Blakely, creator of Spanx, uses driving as a way to come up with new ideas. She often takes the long way home just to give herself more quiet time. Why do these activities bear fruit? Brain experts suggest that rather than ruminating on a subject, the activities relieve the pressure to find a solution and let your brain work in the background.

3. Seek out the unconventional.

Buckminster Fuller, a 20th-century inventor, dedicated his life to making the world work for all humanity. Fuller did not limit himself to one field but worked as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist” to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction and poverty.

I was introduced to Fuller’s work in a seminar I attended years ago. I remember being struck by where Fuller routinely went for inspiration: a simple place—big city newsstands—where he could scan an array of magazines and select a handful of publications on subjects he’d never read. He’d read these magazines cover to cover. Fuller had learned from experience that reading something unfamiliar opened up new ideas of thought.

I practiced Fuller’s selection method recently at an airport magazine stand. Rather than choose my usual business of fashion magazines, I opted for Popular Science and was surprised that an article sparked several ideas for this book.

4. Challenge yourself.

It’s been reported that the Beatle song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” composed by George Harrison, came from a challenge he gave himself. Visiting his mother, he decided he would try to write a song from the first book he picked up at her house. He turned to a page with the words “gently weeps” and a song idea was born.

5. Continually ponder.

To win the hearts and minds of people who can help you rise, ask yourself, What do my stakeholders value? In your constellation of stakeholders—your boss, your direct reports, colleagues, the firm’s customers, suppliers and partners—be constantly thinking about how you can bring unexpected, new value to these relationships.

New ideas are everywhere, and it’s never been easier to find creative inspiration. When an idea pops into your head, write it down or snap a picture with your phone—of a billboard, a storefront, a quote in a book. Keep yourself open.


Paying attention, bundling ideas, giving yourself space, seeking out the unconventional, challenging yourself, spotting your stakeholder’s new value trends are just a few ways to out-think ordinary.

It takes courage, hard work and tenacity to have an idea and see it all the way through to implementation—you have to be fearless to step out and try something different.

Related: 6 Scientifically Proven Creativity Boosters You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Jill Griffin is an independent public board director; internationally published, Harvard “Working Knowledge” author; and global thought leader on customer loyalty. Jill is passionate about bringing more diversity to the corporate board room, and since 2003, she has served as Board Director for Luby’s/Fuddruckers Restaurants. She is the author of Customer Loyalty, Customer Winback, Taming the Search-and-Switch Customer and Earn Your Seat on a Corporate Board.