The Secret Phrase that Jump Starts Creativity


January 12, 2017

by Carla Johnson

Great ideas seem to be a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Are companies fertile with fabulous ideas because they woo creative people? Or is it the creative people who create the culture?

Companies that consistently crank out innovative work have learned how to streamline the process – even the parts that allow for uncertainty and chaos. But they’ve also mastered something else that shackles most brands: They know how to jumpstart the process.

Dr. Min Basadur has spent more than four decades studying creative thinking, innovation and problem solving capabilities in companies. Through his work he’s found one thing that radically stands out: the language that people use can inhibit creativity instead of encouraging it.

That’s how he came up with the “How might we…” phrase that some of the most innovative companies in the world use. Companies like Google, Facebook and design-thinking powerhouse IDEO.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Basadur said that people start out by asking, “How can we do this?” or “How should we do that?” But the words “can” and “should” imply judgement.

Can we do this? Do we really think that we have the capabilities to do this? The resources? Credibility?

Should we do this? Is this where we should be spending our time? Is this the right thing to do?

Might, however, “helps people to create options more freely, and opens up more possibilities.”

This is key to creativity.

Without judgement, every idea is just that. An idea. It’s neither good or bad. Right or wrong. It’s simply something to be considered and, perhaps, evolved. It’s neither good or bad, right or wrong. It’s just an idea that might work.

Here’s an example.

When Basadur worked at Procter & Gamble in the 1970s, they were in a heated battle against Colgate-Palmolive’s popular new Irish Spring soap. This green-striped bar of soap had P&G’s marketers in a lather, trying to figure out how to beat the competition at the soap game.

Instead of trying to copy the green bar, Basadur suggested looking at how they might answer a bigger question. It’s not about, “How can we create a better green-striped bar,” but rather “How might we create a more refreshing soap of our own? By changing the nature of the question, Basadur was able to redirect the challenge and open the creative floodgates. Out of this came the idea of a coastal-blue and white striped bard named Coast.

Paired with about the why of any project, the How Might We questions delve deeper into problem definition and problem solving than most people are skilled at doing. This is critically important because before we can successfully solve any problem, we have to be able to define the problem we’re actually solving.

Photo credit: Flickr user Pimthida

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.