Ignite Your Idea Process

IdeaConnection Interview with Sam Harrison, Author of IdeaSpotting, Zing!, and IdeaSelling
By Vern Burkhardt
"If an idea pops up, write it down. If a vision drifts in, sketch it out."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Creativity seems to have been the focus of your career? What most interests you about this topic?

photo of Sam HarrisonSam Harrison: First off, Vern, thanks for asking me to interview with IdeaConnection – you provide great content, and I'm delighted to participate.

To me, life without creativity would be like life without oxygen – it keeps life exciting, meaningful and fulfilling. I grew up in a home where reading, writing, asking questions, and laughing were encouraged and celebrated. My mother would once a week call me and all the other little neighborhood kids, wipe the mud off our hands, and gather us in her music room for a class she called "Expression." She taught us songs, poems, tap-dancing, and a bit of acting. I learned to cherish creativity and imagination.

VB: What type of consulting services do you offer?

Sam Harrison: I took early retirement from branding, marketing, product development, and other creative communications several years ago. Since that time, I've been writing and speaking on creativity-related topics – brainstorming, creative process, finding inspiration, selling ideas, and so forth.

Most consulting work I do these days comes as follow-up to my speaking and in-house creative workshops – when a manager or creative director wants additional creative coaching for a team or individual.

VB: You teach creativity, writing, and presentation-skills classes at Portfolio Center, a graduate-studies program for writers, designers and photographers in Atlanta. What are some of the key messages you give your students?

Sam Harrison: I stress the importance of exploration – the need to open eyes, ears, and minds to life if we want fresh fuel for creativity. I also push students to go past the first idea – that's the same idea everybody else will have. And I encourage students to be themselves, but to be the best version of themselves.

VB: A couple of decades ago, you devised a five-step creativity process for you and your team. What led to your development of this process, which you discuss in Zing!?

Sam Harrison: Our creative teams were coming up with lots of great ideas, but I really couldn't tell you how we were doing it. I felt if we could better identify and articulate our process we could more easily allocate time to meet deadlines – and better explain our inner workings to clients, new employees, and other stakeholders. So we took several of our best ideas and dissected how we came up with them. It turns out the steps for developing ideas were pretty consistent.

cover of ZingAs I began talking with other creative professionals and digging into research on the topic, I discovered most creative processes were similar. This, of course, reinforced their validity. To express my process I began using the mnemonic of "Explore Freedom, Embrace Life" for the five steps of Explore, Freedom, Pause (represented by the comma), Embrace and Life. These are the five steps I discuss in Zing!.

VB: You say, "Feed your Mind All the Time." Do we have to consciously do this?

Sam Harrison: In today's info-saturated world, we humans have become highly efficient at screening out thousands of messages. To manage this, we put ourselves on auto-pilot as we go through life. And as a consequence, we fail to observe what's going on around us. No new material means few new ideas.

To stay creative, we have to switch off the auto-pilot during our day, and consciously feed our minds with those things that inspire us.

VB: "Turn off TV. Turn on mind." Do you have any advice for people who say they are stimulated by watching educational programs on TV?

Sam Harrison: If it stimulates you, watch it. I love watching Charlie Rose interviews of actors and authors, neuroscientists and doctors. And I'm often inspired by shows on the Discovery Channel and History Channel. What I want to walk away from are all those mind-numbing sitcoms and negative pundits.

Here's the acid test: Does the TV show inspire you or tire you? If it inspires your mind and creativity, by all means keep watching. But if it tires you – if you're just staring at the screen out of habit – switch off the TV and read, write, sketch, sing, dance, cook, or do any other inspiring activity.

VB: "Micro-managing limits creativity, but micro-looking expands it." What is "micro-looking" and how does it expand creativity?

Sam Harrison: Micro-looking is an exercise to help us look at ordinary objects in new ways. You take a jeweler's or printer's loupe and use it to closely examine a painting, vegetable, flower, fabric sample, iPhone, or any other object. Ask yourself questions like "what does this remind me of?" "What's important about what I'm seeing?" "How could I use what I see here?" It's an interesting exercise, because creativity is often about seeing ordinary things in extraordinary ways.

VB: You are keen on watching people. Why does this promote creativity?

Sam Harrison: Most of us say we're "people-watchers," but usually we're talking about watching people for entertainment value. And I love doing that as much as the next guy. But I also find it helpful to actively observe people's behavior – to watch how they interact with others, how they make decisions.

There' another reason – mirror neurons. As we watch other people, we have these mirroring brain cells that recreate their experiences within our own minds. So when we see a guy smack his thumb with a hammer we cringe, because mirror neurons in our brains fire as if we whacked our own thumbs.

Because of mirror neurons, we can mentally experience the experiences of people we observe. This leads to understanding, and understanding leads to inspiration.

VB: "From time to time, we all seem to regard listening as the space we endure before speaking again." Do you have any tips on how we can train ourselves to really listen to what people have to say?

Sam Harrison: We're taught to talk and to write, but we're never taught to listen. So we have to train ourselves to be good listeners. And the main thing is to get ourselves out of the way. As somebody put it: "Big egos have little ears."

The challenge is to learn to actively listen – to totally concentrate on what the person is saying without thinking about what we're going to say next. This takes practice.

During conversations with friends, family and co-workers, try deliberately concentrating on listening. Notice when you're tuning out or interrupting. Work on staying focused.

VB: "Stop exploring when you've found heaven." Would you talk about how "research can be exaggerated into vice?"

Sam Harrison: Personal research is jet fuel for creative insights, but sometimes we get so involved in our research we don't know when to quit. We look up and the deadline is crashing down – and we haven't even started the brainstorming process.

There comes a point where research has diminishing returns. Look for those indicators and set a deadline for exploration to be completed.

VB: How do you encourage an "explosion of creativity" when working with others?

Sam Harrison: "Explosion of creativity" is music producer Glen Ballard's term for quick ideas and fast composition. He doesn't believe in sitting around waiting for inspiration. Neither do I.

We often have to hunt down inspiration with a club. I encourage people to get out of their cubicles and venture into the real world. Go to a museum, mall, park, restaurant, bookstore, or theater. There's inspiration everywhere.

VB: "A proud sponsor of Negative News Network is the Eveready Excuses Exchange." Would you talk about this?

Sam Harrison: We often clog our creative channels by filling them with negative internal messages – often they're excuses we say to ourselves. We have the beginning of an idea, then kill it by telling ourselves we're too busy, too tired, not smart enough, or that people will laugh at us.

As we learn to detect and dismiss excuses, creativity flourishes.

VB: "Disconnect from all the Chatter." Does this mean that the more plugged in we become with our iPods, Blackberries, and other media devices the less creative we are likely to become?

Sam Harrison: Um, let me get through texting these messages, and I'll answer your question. Seriously, technology is here to stay – so back away from my iPhone!

But as great as technology can be, we need to unplug on a regular basis and give ourselves some creative think time.

VB: What is your advice to youth who are fixated on text messaging with their friends? Will this enhance or reduce development of their creative abilities?

Sam Harrison: Time will tell. I have been wondering lately about the effect search engines will have on young people.

I heavily rely on Google for writing speeches and articles, so I fully appreciate its value. But a generation is now being raised with Google and expecting instant gratification – answers always at their fingertips with the click of a computer key.

Idea development often takes seeking and discovery, time and patience. Will the Google generation have that patience and will they deep dive for innovative solutions? They'll likely rise to the occasion, but it'll be interesting to watch this play out.

VB: How can we recognize an idea that "zings?"

Sam Harrison: For me, a zinging idea is one that has both novelty and value.

VB: "Some people find oil. Some don't." That pretty much sums up creativity." Would you talk about this?

Sam Harrison: Oil magnate J. Paul Getty made that statement when asked about his success. I feel the same sentiments apply to creativity.

We all have creative abilities. Some people drill down deep enough to get in touch with those natural resources, some don't. We all have ideas. Some people do the work and take the risks to bring these ideas to life, some don't.

cover of IdeaSpotting VB: Have you heard from readers of IdeaSpotting whether reading the book helped get their creativity on the "fast track?" Any specific story you can recall?

Sam Harrison: Vern, I get lots of really nice notes and emails about IdeaSpotting, and they always make my day. A recent one that comes to mind was from a woman who studied engineering in college because she wanted to invent things. But then her career took a different course. She wrote to say her mother-in-law gave her a copy of IdeaSpotting, and that reading it made her realize she could still have ideas, invent things, and bring those ideas to life. So she's rethinking her future.

And some emails and stories I've received from China, Korea, and Japan have really warmed my heart during the past several months. IdeaSpotting has been recently translated into several Asian editions.

VB: Of the 13 traits you identify as making an IdeaSpotter, are there a few you consider especially important and useful?

Sam Harrison: Good question. They're all important, but if I had to put one at the top of the list, it would be curious. Without curiosity, there is no creativity.

VB: Does one have to be high energy and extraverted to generate the most and best ideas?

Sam Harrison: Well, I know highly creative people who are calm and rather reserved. But there's always a fire burning on the inside, a commitment, a passiond – and the energy to move their ideas to reality.

VB: "Search out the right people for smarter insights." How can we recognize when we encounter the "right" people?

Sam Harrison: They're usually the people directly involved with the challenge or problem we're trying to solve. I've often gained more insights by circulating around the break room with in-the-trenches employees than by sitting in a boardroom with executives.

VB: "Consumers commonly call on the leopard and lizard brains – rather than the intellectual brain – for buying decisions." How does this insight help us if we wish to design a new product or improve our existing products?

Sam Harrison: Mental evolution has given us three brains in one – the lizard or survival brain, the leopard or emotional brain, and the intellectual or learning and reasoning brain.

Consumers usually buy on emotion and then justify that decision with reasoning and rationalization. So if we're developing or improving a product, we need to understand the consumers' leopard and lizard brains in relation to that product.

We do this by looking through the customers' eyes. What are their wants and needs? What are their hopes and fears? What makes them laugh, cry, and scream?

VB: Your book, IdeaSpotting, is creatively laid out, thought-provoking, and includes many jingles and sayings that provide real meaning such as, "Questions determine fate – whether we'll explore or stagnate, create or vegetate." Another is "Life imitates art, art imitates life." Does it reflect your "true" personality?

Sam Harrison: Thanks for those kind words about IdeaSpotting. And I'd sure like to think my books reflect my personality and creativity – but I'll leave it up to those who know me to make that determination!

VB: Like you, do most of the highly creative people you encounter make notes about the "floating particle" of ideas as they come to mind?

Sam Harrison: Almost without exception, Vern. The highly creative people I've interviewed for my books and articles – and those I've worked with throughout my career – always have a notebook nearby for sketching, reflecting, and capturing ideas.

Ideas are fleeting. We have to catch them before they're gone!

VB: Is it useful in developing our creative abilities to read the many books about the approaches of Edison, Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Socrates?

Sam Harrison: I've found such reading extremely helpful, and I also like reading about present-day creative geniuses such as Steve Jobs. There's nothing like real-world examples to show the way and ignite the creativity inside us.

VB: Why do you think some still adhere to a "not invented here" mentality?

Sam Harrison: All kinds of reasons – fear, inertia, ego, turf-protection. Perhaps a love affair with past successes. Such a mindset can be devastating to an organization, because it prevents people from advancing fresh ideas. And from opening the doors and windows to receive ideas from the outside.

VB: "In underdeveloped countries, citizens often complain about hunger. In wealthier countries, citizens often complain about boredom." How does this relate to your comment that being bored is a "sign of creative starvation?"

Sam Harrison: Boredom is an indicator of inactivity, of self-absorption, of complacency. It's often an indication of being in a comfortable, cozy rut.

As a kid, when I would tell my mother I was bored, she would say, "Good – that means you get to invent something new to do." The same is true for adults. Get up. Get going. Be creative.

VB: You highly recommend travel and taking vacations. How does this stimulate creativity?

Sam Harrison: Travel exposes us to new people and places. It pulls us out of ruts. It moves us out of sameness. It causes us to think and reflect. All these are prescriptions for creativity.

VB: If we read and apply the suggestions in IdeaSpotting, will we be able to "spot idea after idea after idea?"

Sam Harrison: In my humble opinion, yes. You'll be able to discover insights leading to the generation of many, many bold ideas. And it's important to recognize that the practices and suggestions in IdeaSpotting don't just stem from my mind and experiences. They come from the proven practices of many highly creative people.

VB: Your third book, IdeaSelling, will be published this spring. Who should be sure to read it?

cover of IdeaSellingSam Harrison: Anybody who knows the pain and suffering of presenting an idea and having it slammed to the ground, picked over, or altered beyond recognition. In other words, everybody reading this interview!

I wrote this book because selling ideas is a common challenge. After my speeches and workshops, people always come up afterwards to tell me that when they do have ideas, they can't get them approved by their boss, client, or other decision maker.

If people want their ideas to see the light of day, they must learn to effectively present them. The advertising pioneer, David Ogilvy, once said, "It's useless to be a creative, original thinker if we can't sell what we create." I'm confident IdeaSelling will help creative people learn ways to get the go-ahead from decision makers.

VB: Is it too early to ask if you have plans for a fourth book?

Sam Harrison: Like most authors, I swear when I finish a book that it will be the last one. But then I soon forget the labor pains and start yearning to write another. And I have lots of book ideas in my head – so please stay tuned!

VB: Thank you; it's been a pleasure talking with you. We look forward to the release of IdeaSelling.

Author Sam Harrison encourages designers to quit looking inward and to explore the world around them for creative inspiration. "Nobody spots hot ideas in cold offices. So why sit there?"

The author identifies the traits of an IdeaSpotter as being: tolerant, independent, whitty, curious, persistent, observant, questioning, optimistic, energetic, passionate, flexible, intuitive, perceptive. He advises that we usually listen at one of four levels: ignore the person, pretend to listen, selectively listen, and attentively listen. The fifth level of listening, the most effective, for IdeaSpotting is empathic listening – listening with your ears, eyes, and heart to fully understand the other person's words and feelings. This gives us lots to work on!

Sam Harrison identifies a five-step process for "creative zing." It is:

  1. Explore – for insights.

  2. Freedom – Have a free-range brain. Brainstorm, doodle, think, play, daydream.

  3. Pause – Give your subconscious "elbowroom" to work.

  4. Embrase‐Capture the brightest ideas your subconscious has produced.

  5. Life – Bring the idea to life. Sell the idea through prototypes, briefs, sketches and all the other tips we'll read about in IdeaSelling.

As Sam Harrison advises, "Be an IdeaSpotter. Not a Trainspotter."

Sam Harrison's Bio:
Throughout his 20-year design career in creative communications as a freelancer, agency designer, consultant, academic and in-house client, Sam Harrison has learned a lot about creativity – including how to find, keep, and express it.

He also teaches creativity, writing and presentation-skills classes at Portfolio Center, a graduate-studies program for writers, designers and photographers in Atlanta, Georgia. He has also guest-lectured at many colleges and universities.

Sam Harrison is an in-demand professional speaker and member of the National Speakers Association, presenting highly rated seminars and keynote talks to agencies, firms, and associations throughout North America and beyond.

He is on the advisory council for the HOW Conference and has been a speaker at that conference for the past five years. He is also a recommended speaker for the International Association of Business Communicators and a frequent speaker at IABC's World Conferences and its local chapters.

He was previously a senior vice president with an S&P 500 firm, and has worked with such clients and affiliates as National Football League, Major League Baseball, Hallmark, Microsoft, American Express, Merrill Lynch, Quicken, Hasbro, John Denver Environmental Groups, U.S. Humane Society, Arts Alliance, and Zoo Atlanta.

He is the author of Zing! Five steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command (2004), IdeaSpotting: How and Where to Find Your Next Great Idea (2006), and IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers (to be published Spring 2010).

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