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Cube 3 - Product Design & Development
By Gary Rose on 24/02/22 | Product Design

The term ‘blue sky thinking’ may be dismissed as “one of those business buzz-phrases,” but it is in fact a very useful technique in the pursuit of fresh ideas, innovation and problem solving. At its heart, blue sky thinking is all about stimulating creative ideas without limitations being imposed on them - at least not initially.

Blue sky thinking defined

In blue sky thinking, you are literally of the mindset ‘the sky’s the limit’ so encouraging creative thought: the Collins dictionary defines the term as ‘creative ideas that are not limited by current thinking or beliefs.’

When trying to think of ideas to perhaps create a new product, write something original or problem solve, we often automatically limit and qualify them before they’ve even had a chance to ‘take flight’. The risk here is, while an idea may well need refining and some logic applied to it in time, it can be snuffed out prematurely if limiting thoughts are applied too early.

Thoughts such as “that’s ridiculous” or “that would never work” or “far too expensive” or “no-one would like it” can crowd in as part of the general way we filter creative thoughts and ideas. The ‘blue sky’ approach is to free our minds of limitation so as to let ideas flow - even to the point of applying some so-called ‘wacky’ thought to them.

For instance, an idea for a product might surface and you might say “what would happen if this was in space?” or “how would we market this with an unlimited budget?” or similar. These questions might sound daft, but they can free the mind wonderfully and, from this way of thinking, valuable nuggets can be mined.

Blue sky thinking in action

A classic example of blue sky thinking in action is Apple: their slogan ‘think differently’ sums up how they have founded their success. Their founder, the late Steve Jobs, was full of innovation and ideas based on thinking with a vision not initially limited by commercial or logistical considerations.

He ‘did’ the unfettered blue sky thinking, and his design experts brought it about in the products that Apple have founded their success on. Indeed, Apple re-invented itself from a computer maker to more of an all-round electronics company, and now make most of their considerable sales in mobile tech.

Imagine if limiting thought dominated the process when Steve Jobs was blue sky thinking about the mobile phone market? He would have been warned that the market was ultra-competitive, dominated (at the time) by companies such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson, so how could a non-mobile name like Apple get a foothold in that seemingly ‘sewn up’ space?

The rest is history: the iPhone is now the biggest selling smartphone in the world. It’s not too dramatic to say that, if Jobs had listened to naysayers, the iPhone might never have come into being.

Children are classic blue-sky thinkers: when playing they have no limits and are constantly thinking without limitation until, unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, it wanes and perhaps stops altogether as they grow a little older and ‘self-edit’ so applying limitations often disguised as logic to situations.

Active idea generation

Coming up with ideas isn’t easy - and even tougher when there are deadlines - so it’s important to go and get ideas as opposed to hoping inspiration will strike.

Blue sky thinking is actually a structured part of proactive ideas generation: allowing ideas to appear and evolve without applying limiting thoughts so that the chances of finding at least one that ‘works’ are increased.

Once the blue-sky thinking phase is through then comes evaluation - but not before.

So far from being a ‘business buzz phrase’ blue sky thinking is a valuable technique that can significantly enhance commercial success.

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