When you engage in a brainstorm, or need to generate lots of ideas, you use a certain type of creative thinking called divergent thinking. This involves using lateral-thinking strategies to create options or come up with many potential solutions. 

Einstein called creativity “intelligence having fun” – and this definition works well for divergent thinking. To show you how this type of creative thinking feels, spend the next ten minutes writing down as many ways you can think of to use a paperclip. Be as creative and ridiculous as you like. 

How many did you come up with? Three? Ten? Or maybe twenty? You may notice that initially it’s hard to think of that many, but soon your brain ‘loosens up’ and starts to think more laterally, coming up with ever more bizarre uses for a paperclip. So one way to improve your brainstorms is to give them more time, but if you don’t have all day, researchers have found a number of other ways to increase your divergent thinking skills and consequently having more productive brainstorming sessions.

Some easy tips:

Prime your brain: Doing an unrelated ‘alternate uses task’ (such as the exercise above – potential uses for a paperclip), prepares your brain to shift into a more lateral way of thinking.

Involve other people: Brainstorm as a group – BUT research suggests you should ask individuals to brainstorm alone and then combine all of your ideas. This approach results in a greater number of total ideas, which at this stage is what you’re after.

Go for quantity: At the early stages of the process all ideas are good ideas. You want to cast the net far and wide, to capture the greatest range of ideas possible. The point is to generate quantity, and from that comes quality.

Defer all judgment: Remove any ‘filters’ and try to think unrestrictedly. People often keep their ‘silly’ ideas to themselves, when it’s the silly ones that are often the best. Don’t moderate your ideas at this stage.

Go for a walk: Researchers from Stanford University found people generated 50% more ideas after a walk. This makes a case for walking meetings and getting out of the office. 

Go somewhere different: Move to a different room or leave your office/home and go somewhere else entirely. Why not go to the pub? A couple of drinks can often spark creativity. Simply getting up from your desk may be all it takes for you to see a problem from a different angle.

Combine, distort, and delete existing ideas: What happens when you modify or combine existing ideas or current solutions? Do new ideas present themselves?

The ‘superpower tip’:

Shift your perceptual position

The above strategies will all help, but if you really want to train your brain to become more lateral, the key is to improve your ability to deliberately shift your perspective, or your ‘perceptual position.’

This means you need to try to see the world (or the problem you’re working on) from someone else’s perspective. This can be particularly helpful when thinking creatively about business strategy: What would your customers think? How would your employees feel? 

Your brain has an amazing ability to imagine ‘what if?’. Entertain what might be rather than what is, to help challenge your current reality. View your problem through the eyes of others and it’s possible you’ll discover a perspective you would otherwise have missed.

As the philosopher Alain de Botton notes: “The chief enemy of good decisions is a lack of sufficient perspectives on a problem.” Take as many different perspectives as you can and you will notice it will significantly help you become more creative when generating ideas.

How to process all your ideas:

Once you’ve generated an exhaustive list of ideas you’ll need to process them – find themes, notice relationships, and make some decisions. For this, you need to let your ideas incubate. Do not do it straight away! Have a proper break, or better still, sleep on it. Your brain is particularly good at forming association and making sense of things while you sleep. When you return you will see your ideas with a fresh perspective and with greater insights.



3 point review:

  • Loosen up and prime your brain with an unrelated task – such as the paperclip exercise
  • Follow my easy tips to increase your divergent thinking.
  • Use the ‘super power tip’ and shift your perceptual position. 
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