7 ways to generate great ideas

When we’re up against it and embroiled in our busy lives, it can be difficult to take a step back to think of new ideas that may actually help us, our teams or our organisations. Yet new ideas are essential to enable us to adapt, innovate and achieve our aspirations.

You may be familiar with ideas generation sessions that involve sitting in a meeting room, debating ideas and capturing them on a flipchart. This can work well in some situations; however, it can also be somewhat uninspiring and not always inclusive. Alternatively, you may be experiencing a personal challenge that requires some fresh thinking that you’re struggling to generate on your own. Precious time that is set aside for ideas generation should be productive and engaging for those taking part. This article is to remind you that there are various ways to create great ideas. Here are seven of them that you may not have thought of:

  1. Clearly frame the question that you are answering before you begin. This gives focus to your ideas. For example, ‘How can we grow our market share by x%?’, ‘What do I/we want this organisation to have achieved in 3 years’ time?’, ‘How can we ensure that this recent incident never happens again?’ or ‘How could we address this problem for our population within 10 years?’.

  2. Humour. When working with a group, use humour appropriately to put people into a more creative state before tackling the more serious business of generating ideas. For example, I’ve asked participants to make a paper plane and write their name and an interesting fact about themselves inside it. Participants then fly their plane from the back of the room to the front to be read out. The plane that flies the furthest gets a prize. With paper planes flying and the element of competition, people reconnect with their inner child, there’s laughter and the energy in the room goes up. You can then use this positive energy to focus in on the challenge to be addressed.

  3. Provocation. If you or your team are unable to develop your thoughts because of a perceived barrier, such as affordability or a limiting belief (e.g. this won’t work because….), imagine that this barrier no longer exists. Spend 10 minutes thinking of all the things that would be possible. What does this give you that you didn’t have before? How might you make even a small amount of progress towards achieving these things?

  4. Creative visualisation. Imagine that you have somehow addressed the challenge in question and expand this into a vision that can be represented on paper, e.g. a mind map, a picture or a collage. Ask questions of yourself or the group to expand the vision: What do you see? What can you hear? Who are you with? What are you doing? What are others doing? When is this? How do you feel? Once this is clear, then brainstorm all the possible ways that you could get there.

  5. Silent brainstorm with groups. Some people can find it uncomfortable to share their thoughts openly in a group. They may feel insecure speaking up or instead have a preference for introversion. You may also have a big group to engage with and want to hear from everyone. Using a silent brainstorm can give everyone an equal opportunity to contribute. Give everyone a set of sticky notes and a time limit (e.g. 7 minutes) to, in silence, scribble down one idea per note. Ask participants to stick their ideas up on the wall (the movement creates some energy) and then group these together into themes to then discuss as a group, before you move into prioritisation.

  6. Go for quality not quantity. An alternative view to the traditional brainstorm (which involves getting everything out on the table without filtering it), is to work on one idea at a time and to develop it to be the best that it can be. This way it can be evaluated in a more informed way. Either as an individual, or in a small group, take a piece of paper and draw the first idea that comes up, all the while withholding judgement as to whether the idea is workable in practice. Ask questions to expand the idea and bring it to life. For example, ‘What does it look like?’, ‘How does it work?’. Spend 5 – 10 minutes positively developing every idea before moving on to evaluation.

  7. Walk and talk. Creativity comes to us when our brains make new connections, therefore it helps if we can step away from our immediate work environment to think of new ideas. Try going for a walk with a trusted person to explain and expand on your ideas. Encourage the other person to ask questions to expand your thoughts. The movement and change of scene can have an energising and creative effect, plus talking it out can crystallise your ideas.

Summary

We’ve explored seven approaches here to generating new ideas as an alternative to debating ideas in a traditional meeting format, or wrestling with a problem on your own. Once you have the ideas captured, evaluate and prioritise these to see which ideas are worth implementing or at least developing further. Simple tools can be useful here that also build consensus. Try using an Ease vs. Impact/Benefit grid or Dot Voting before you move onto planning your solutions.

Which ideas generation techniques do you use most frequently? How could different approaches generate new thinking for you, your team or your organisation?