Casey Butler Harwood

Blue Sky Thinking — What is it and Why Do We Use it?

Blue sky thinking is an exercise that we use a lot here at Drawn. The term basically means brainstorming without bounds to unearth all manner of outside-the-box solutions — practicality be damned. Which is just as awesome as it sounds, I can assure you, because what's more fun than suggesting a pop-up, urban beach to promote ice cream or sending swiss cheese to the actual moon? Still, you may be wondering why we do it. What are the benefits?

Our fellow design thinkers over at IDEO put it this way: “We can’t get to new places by only doing what’s worked in the past. To come up with innovative ideas, it’s important to go beyond your comfort zone. In order to do that, you’ve got to start with an abundance of options—including some wild ideas—that you can build on and test.”

This may be well demonstrated with a quick trip to the kitchen. Okay, now imagine that you’re preparing dinner and you can make anything you want. Except that you can only use the ingredients that are currently in your fridge, you need to have the meal on the table by 6 p.m., and your significant other is allergic to peanuts. These are familiar constraints, so they probably don’t feel especially oppressive to you, but chances are, you'll end up making the same meal that you've made 10,000 times before and it will be "fine."

Now, humor me: Let’s consider how the simple act of cooking a meal might look different if you could use any ingredients — no matter how much they cost or how difficult they are to come by. In other words, you have truly unlimited resources. What if you could take all the time you needed to develop a mind-blowing recipe without anyone going blind with hanger? (No deadlines!) And, finally, how might your approach change if other people’s restrictions and preferences could be magically removed from the equation? You’re looking at a whole new level of culinary creativity, my friend.

Of course, we live in the real world, where your significant other still has peanut allergies. So, here’s where your team comes in — and this is the real beauty of blue sky thinking, if you ask me: If you throw your magic recipe into a blender with your teammates’ ideas, they’ll bounce off of one another, eventually morphing into something that’s just as magical and unexpected, and yet doable. At least, that’s what we’ve found here at Drawn.

Interestingly, Bryan believes that it's not so much the absence of constraints, but "turning the this-is-how-you're-supposed-to-do-it on its head" that nets the most creative and impactful results. Back to the kitchen for a minute, where Bryan says that many people would honor the status quo and say, "We only have eggs in the fridge and we're a bit tired of eggs, but I guess we will cook scrambled eggs using the same pan, on the same stovetop, because that's how everybody makes eggs."

"But if we're tired of the same old eggs," he points out, "what if we try to use a different pan, or the oven, or the BBQ? And what if we try preparing the toast differently, too? I think the value of blue sky thinking is in daring to ask the 'What if...'"

So, the next time you’re feeling stumped by a project with a limited budget and anxiety-inducing deadlines, try gathering your team to imagine how you might approach the project in an alternate universe where none of those restrictions exist — or even to ask, "What if eggs were deep-fried?" You may be surprised by what kind of solutions you come up with — and just how realistic they are.