Guest Post by Jeff Kavanaugh

Have you ever had an idea — a brilliant idea — that you couldn’t wait to dive into? And have you ever experienced the frustration of hitting a roadblock after pouring hours and hours into your brilliant idea?

Everyone knows this feeling. The typical process looks like this:

  1. You have a moment of inspiration.
  2. You dedicate every spare moment to making this idea a reality.
  3. You spend every hour of the day half-thinking about your idea.
  4. A month down the road, you hit a roadblock you can’t overcome.
  5. You slowly spend less time on your idea, until your enthusiasm completely dies.

It’s an exhausting, ultimately fruitless process that we’ve all experienced. However, it’s also completely unnecessary.

Break Through a Creative Roadblock

As a consultant, I am thrown into a lot of different business mysteries. No two businesses are the same, and no two problems are identical, and so I constantly have to generate and execute new ideas to succeed.

Needless to say, I am extremely familiar with creative roadblocks. I’ve developed an entire repeatable process for overcoming them, that I use every time I find myself coming up short. It starts with:

1. Give Your Imagination Space to Work

First, it is very important to eliminate distractions. Anyone can raise their imagination quotient simply by cultivating silence and eliminating the distractions around them.

A blinking phone or a TV blaring in the background prevents one from reaching those deep recesses of the mind necessary to overcome a problem. Sitting in silence will allow what is in one’s mind to come out. Soothing background music or a movie you have seen a thousand times can work also.

As Cal Newport says in his phenomenal book Deep Work, “If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration.”

In fact, I have seen “context switching” be a huge loss to creativity and productivity. Engineers deep in thought who simply had an email notification pop up, lost as much as 14 minutes of time to get back into a flow.

2. Use Empathy to Avoid Obstacles

I like to approach a problem as if it were a case. First, determine if it is a puzzle or mystery.

Puzzles are difficult, but you have all the pieces. Mysteries are another matter — you don’t even know what problem to solve. To sort out what the problem is, I use this approach:

  • What – understand the context and situation, with some quick research
  • Who – identify the players involved
  • Why – understand their motivations

The Who step may be the most important. If there are people involved, I try to walk in their shoes.

The fact that clients hire my firm and me in the first place means their problem is difficult and likely ambiguous. This means that they have a need or a broad goal, but probably aren’t 100% clear about what they want, and are constrained in how to go about solving it.

I use empathy to understand how the stakeholders see the situation, what they need and want. This is a critical step to make sure I don’t start down a path that will end in an insurmountable roadblock, or solve a problem that does not meet their objectives.

3. Test Your Hypothesis With a 90/10 Approach

Once I understand the situation and the people involved, I formulate a hypothesis. This part is straightforward:

  • Identify the problem
  • Identify variables
  • Estimate a solution
  • Interrogate solution
  • Identify patterns and connections

Testing the hypothesis is trickier. It’s easy to take a hypothesis that is flawed and waste days trying to make it work. Young consultants do this all the time.

Instead, I create a hypothesis and test it using a 90/10 approach. I take an idea 10% of the way and then test it. If it doesn’t make sense, I abandon it. I repeat this process until one seems to have promise, then commit to it.

The 90/10 principle is similar to the Pareto Principle which states that 20% of your input is responsible for 80% of your results. For example, 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your salespeople. Ninety/ten simply takes it further and applies agile thinking to move through the prioritization process quickly.

4. Be Confident In Your Conclusion

After testing my hypothesis, I come to a conclusion. I make sure to take a stand, to get behind that conclusion in no uncertain terms. If you’re firm in your conclusion, you can prove it right or wrong.

Most people try to cover their bases with ambiguous language. This actually hurts them. The clearer the conclusion, the easier you can test it, learn from it, and move on.

I believe in a principle called creative confidence. In the words of innovator Ben Grossman-Kahn, it is, “Having the freedom and courage to fail or take creative risks and the knowledge that all of the ideas you create have value.”

This confidence extends throughout the entire creative process. You need courage and confidence even to put forth a hypothesis. However, you must couple this confidence with self-awareness. Approach problems with the confidence that you will solve them, but also with the expectation that you will need to (get to!) learn something new in the process.

Otherwise, you may develop a false confidence in what you already “know” and that might lead you to the wrong decision.

Develop Your Creative Confidence

On your next big or even not so big challenge, see how this process can work for you. Scan to find out the What-Who-Why, find your quiet state, take a creatively confident stand, and see what happens.

After all, it is a win-win scenario. If your hypothesis or prototype is great, then you have solved your problem. If not, you have learned something and will create a better one next time.

Guest Post

jeff-kavanaughJeff Kavanaugh is a Managing Partner at InfoSys, one of the world’s largest consulting firms with over $9bn a year in revenue and a market cap in the 11-figures. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and writes at