When you want to generate lots of ideas you use a particular type of creative thinking called divergent thinking. This involves using lateral-thinking strategies to create multiple options or potential solutions, and good examples of this type of creativity include brainstorming and mind mapping.
To get a sense of how this type of creative thinking feels, spend the next five 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? Five? Maybe ten? You may have noticed 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 and tangential uses for a paperclip. This demonstrates that idea generation does benefit with being given sufficient amounts of time.
Researchers have found a number of other ways to increase your divergent thinking skills and consequently having more productive brainstorming sessions. Below are my top tips, presented in an order that I feel makes the most sense, considering your environment, your mindset and principles for success, and then specific techniques or strategies that if used, should make your next brainstorm dramatically more fruitful.
Remember Einstein’s take on creativity as “intelligence having fun” – have fun with it and your creative brain will come alive.
First, reframe the problem
Before you begin any form of solution oriented brainstorm or idea generation, make sure you have a sufficiently reframed your problem. This is a critical first step. All too often we start trying to solve the problem before we’ve really examined the nature of the problem itself. This is such an important (and often overlooked) step that I’ve written a whole post, and recorded a video about this step, so if you’ve not yet done so watch this first! How to reframe problems.
OK, now we’re at least working on the right problem(!)
Establish a conductive environment
Create a tolerant environment. Make sure people feel permission to express themselves freely. Be patient and encourage autonomy.
Go somewhere different / change your environment: 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.
Apply the principles for success
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.
Go for variety and originality too: focusing on variety and novelty will help increase the number of ideas you come up with
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.
Prime your brain
Sleep, nutrition, movement: Do your best to ensure your brain has had >7 hours sleep, had a brain nutritious food, is well hydrated and you’ve moved your body for more than 10 minutes. These factors will ensure your brain is set for optimal performance.
Create a positive mood: Divergent thinking is enabled by feelings of well-being, optimism and joy.
Eliminate distractions: Turn all your notifications off, and ideally get your distracting device out of reach
Prime your brain(s): 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.
Shift your perspective
Shift your perspective / perceptual position
If you want to train your brain to become more lateral, the trick here is to 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.
I’ve written another post about shifting your perspective here: How to shift your perspective to become more creative.
Shift your time framing
Examine your problem from a future orientation: imagine it’s now one year from now – or ten years from now. How does that change your view of the problem and potential avenues towards solutions?
Work with others (where possible): different perspectives will always help increase the number of potential ideas, so be sure to ask others and collaborate.
Work independently then combine your ideas: When you do work as a team, research suggests it’s best for 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.
Disrupt thinking patterns
Challenge your assumptions: Always be examining and challenging what assumptions you may be making about the problem, or potential solutions. All too often our scope for thinking is limited by previous experience.
Adopt a ‘counterfactual mindset’: Your brain has an amazing ability to imagine ‘what if?’. Entertain what might be rather than what is, to help challenge your current reality.
Think in reverse: Turn the exercise on its head and spend time brainstorming how you could make the situation/problem worse. Also called reverse brainstorming, this can spark new ways of thinking. Then if you reverse all these ‘bad’ ideas, you may strike gold.
Use different media: A generalised approach to improving divergent thinking is to disrupt current thinking patterns, and you can facilitate this by using different media. For example, if your brainstorming on paper, shift two laptops. If you’re capturing ideas digitally, start using post-its.
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.
Connect the unconnected
Combine your ideas: Combine ideas you’ve already generated, make connections between themes and specific ideas and see what new avenues it invites.
Use random inputs: Choose a word from the dictionary, or select a random object, and look for novel connections to your problem. Consider how these connections might be used to solve the problem or provide fresh ideas of ways of thinking
Think in metaphors: Find a suitable metaphor for your problem and use that as a catalyst for new idea generation. For example, if your problem was How to increase sales, you could use a metaphor of improving physical fitness. Then brainstorm How to improve physical fitness: you may come up with exercise more regularly, engage in strength training, get a fitness coach, improve your nutrition, etc. Your job then would be to see how these solutions might relate back to your original problem. For example,
- Exercise more regularly = make more sales calls
- Engage in strength training = engage in sales training
- Get a coach = employ a sales coach
- Improve your nutrition = improve your sales materials
RAISE existing solution
Use the acronym RAISE:
- Rearrange: what can be rearranged or re-ordered to solve the problem?
- Adapt: how can you adapt something you’re already doing?
- Improve: what processes or methods can you improve or modify to solve the problem?
- Substitute: what are some substitutes or alternatives to existing solutions?
- Eliminate: what can be eliminated?
How to process your creative ideas
Once you’ve generated an exhaustive list of ideas you’ll need to process them – find themes, notice relationships, and ultimately make some decisions. For this, your brain needs time, space and perspective. As reluctant as you may be, you need to stop and move away. Have a 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.
Try to see this step as an entirely different stage, one for which different mental resources will be needed. It is a topic so close to my heart that I have written an entirely new post, and created a video for, so if you’ve not already done so watch that now : How to have more creative insights.
A long post but I hope you’ve found it useful. You and your brain are both naturally creative. By following some of these suggestions I hope you notice how creative you can be, and that this helps you dramatically improve your problem-solving.