problem solving

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?


10 ways to get a new perspective on a personal challenge

Are you, a direct report or a colleague feeling stuck in dealing with a challenge? Here are some ideas to get you, or them, unstuck. #problemsolving #coaching #personaldevelopment

No matter how experienced we are, we can all come up against challenges that feel difficult, if not impossible, to overcome for us personally. Situations where there is a responsibility for us to take some action, but for whatever reason this is proving difficult. This may include managing dysfunctions in our team, delivering on a tough business objective, resolving conflict with a colleague or adapting our personal style to get the results that we want.

I've spent 14 years working with individuals and teams to address their organisational and professional challenges. A first step to addressing a challenge that you feel stuck with is to delve deeper into it, to gain fresh insights. So, here are ten approaches that you, or a direct report, could try to gain new perspectives on a personal challenge.

  1. What really is 'the challenge'? The goal here is to get specific and draw out everything that you know (or think that you know) about the challenge to help you to take the right action. Try explaining it to someone else who will truly listen, to expand on your understanding. Take on board their insights too. Perhaps draw or represent the details of the challenge on paper to show the various constituent elements to be addressed. Try using a simple tool that you can adapt for your situation, like 'SWOT' (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) or De Bono's 'Six Thinking Hats' to explore the different facets. As a coach, and someone who has been coached throughout my career, I've also used metaphors and visualisations as a way of representing the features and qualities of a situation so that it can be understood in new ways. What do these new insights give you in addressing the challenge?

  2. What is causing this to be a challenge for me? And why is that a challenge? And why is this a challenge? Keep asking these questions and drilling down until you get past the symptoms of a problem to the root cause of the challenge in question. If you're visual, you could also use a tool like a 'fishbone diagram', adapted for your situation, to represent this analysis on paper. The root cause is the level at which you need to understand the challenge to take effective action. There may be several root causes to address at once. For example, you may be finding it difficult to get started on a project and ask yourself: 'Why am I finding it difficult to get started.' You may then answer: 'Because I can't seem to get motivated to take action'. 'But why aren't I feeling motivated?' 'Because I don't really believe that I can make a success of this.’ 'Why?' 'Because we don’t have the resources in place and because I'm scared of being seen as a failure.' You may drill down further, but you get the idea. Action may therefore be to produce a costed resource plan to agree with the project sponsor alongside working on addressing limiting beliefs and negative thinking.

  3. What assumptions am I making here? What evidence is there to support these assumptions? What counter evidence is there? Try to extrapolate what you know to be real about this challenge and separate this from what may not be real. We all have our own ways of viewing and understanding the world. Our brains have developed to learn from experience and use this to process stimuli accordingly to protect our survival. However, these assumptions may not always be helpful. For example, if you are assuming that your great idea won't be approved by the leadership team because your last idea wasn't, you could be holding off taking action unnecessarily. To address this, you may instead choose to have an informal conversation with the decision maker to determine the chances of your idea being approved and/or work out how best to present your idea so that it's seriously considered. Perhaps it's a limiting belief or negative thought that is stopping you from putting forward your idea (e.g. I'm not good enough, I'm a fraud, I'll look stupid) in which case the work may be on mindset to exchange a limiting belief for a more useful one.

  4. What is within my control? What is outside of my control? Once this is clear, you can invest your energy in the areas that are within your control, rather than in the areas that are not. Try drawing a simple circle to represent your sphere of control, with those elements of the challenge written inside the circle being within your control, those outside the circle being out of your control and those on the border of the circle being possible areas to influence. What does this tell you about where to take action?

  5. What is my responsibility here? We may not be able to move forwards when we blame others, or conversely when we bear more responsibility than we realistically have in relation to a situation. Both can create additional stress and sap our energy to act. Focus on what you can personally take responsibility for and try and let go of the rest.

  6. What progress has already been made? Recognise if there are steps that have been taken to address the challenge already, celebrate any achievements to date and see if this gives a different perspective on the scale of the challenge or how to address it.

  7. What values may be at play here? Our values are core to who we are and what is important to us. They guide how we view others and the wider world. Often a source of conflict in interpersonal relationships can be attributed to one or more of our values being different to those around us. Our values may also affect how motivated or positive we feel about a situation. The first step in understanding this is to make sure that we understand what our core values really are. Then we are in a better position to identify where our values are causing conflict, for example, in how we are interacting with others or in relation to the expectations of our role.

  8. What other perspectives could I take? If you are experiencing an interpersonal conflict with another person, consider using a tool like 'Perpetual Positioning' to explore other possible perspectives and gain new insights . Typical positions to 'try on' are: 1) our own, 2) that of a named person involved in the situation, 3) that of an unknown observer who offers useful advice and 4) that of an unknown distant observer who is looking in on humanity in general. If you can, create four physical positions and move yourself to each in turn as you aim to take on the energy and perspectives of each. Say what needs to be said from each position and then return back to your own position to see what you've learned about the situation. In addition to new insights, sometimes we may even conclude from this exercise that the challenge isn't as significant as we first thought.

  9. How committed am I to addressing this challenge? Rate commitment on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not at all committed and 10 being totally committed). If the score is 8 or less, ask why this is and what would need to happen to make it a 10. Sometimes our lack of commitment can reveal important information about what is important to us or what is really holding us back.

  10. How can I take a step back? Sometimes we can focus so much on addressing a challenge that we can lose our ability to see a way through it. There's a reason for this. When we're focussed on a specific goal our brain concentrates activity in the prefrontal cortex. When we relax (for example when we take a walk, have a shower or do something fun) our brain activates a more creative state, accessing networks across the brain to create new insights. Try doing something totally unrelated to your challenge that makes you feel relaxed, and then come back to exploring the challenge later. How do you view the challenge now?

There are many, many more approaches that can be deployed to perceive a personal challenge differently, ultimately with a view to helping you or someone else to take positive action. Some ideas have been explored here to give you some inspiration which are based on my own experience as a change leadership consultant and coach.

Bear in mind that we each process information differently, so some approaches may work for some and not for others. Play around with different approaches (invent your own even!) and please do share what you know and learn that may be useful to others.