How to create a hundred ideas

Monday, 31 March 2008

As I have blogged about previously, in a knowldege economy your value is dependent on the quality of your thinking and the quality of your decisions. One component of that is coming up with lots of different ideas and that seems to be something many people really struggle with. So here is my 7-step guide to creating a hundred ideas for any given problem.

1) Get the right environment

By far the worst place you can generate good ideas is sat round a table, during work hours, in your work clothes and with no music. Yet this is where people spend hours every week in meetings. The 3 places that most people are most creative are the 3 Bs:

  • In Bed
  • In the Bath
  • In the Bar
These are the most creative environments you can be in and these are excellent environments for generating new ideas. Bed and bath tend to be best for free-idea-association and letting your mind wander and play with ideas. Bars are best for bouncing ideas around with other people, preferably with good music and good alcohol involved. It is no coincidence that most business ideas are generated over lunch or evening drinks.

In order of priority, from worst to best, this is where I would convene a group if I wanted to generate lot of good ideas:
  • The office at work
  • Workplace meeting room
  • A meeting venue outside your organisation
  • A cafe or coffee bar
  • A stimulating creative environment (such as an art gallery)
2) Get the right group

If everyone in the group is the same gender, the same race, the same age and with similar academic background, then you will get very similar suggestions and ideas. As well as going for diversity in age, gender and age, it is useful to get people from different professional backgrounds and a good mix of introverts and extroverts. This will pay dividends in the diversity of ideas and suggestions.

3) Clearing the idea constipation

The first 10 ideas you will have will usually be approaches that have been used in the past or "standard responses" to a problem. So if there is a financial crisis in a hospital, you will often hear vacancy freezes, stop agency nurse spending, stop training spending, bed closures, mergers, etc and these ideas are always the worst.

There is a kind of idea constipation which occurs and you need to clear the initial blockage before the good ideas flow freely. That is why it is worth aiming for 20, 50 or a 100 ideas because your first 10 will very often be the poorest ideas. Typically when I am working with a group and they begin evaluating all the ideas, it is often the ones at the end of the process which are considered the best.

4) Mindmapping and brainstorming

The real advantage of mindmapping and brainstorming is that it promotes non-linear thinking. Our brains are designed to connect disparate ideas and work in a non-linear way and mindmapping and brainstorming are processes that closely mimic the way our brains work.

5) Spark don't judge

One of the real dangers is that you begin evaluating the options early on, whether it is a quick evaluation (i.e. "that won't work" or "we've tried that") or a longer evaluation (where you begin earnestly debating a single option). Both of these processes will slow down and potentially stop the flow of ideas and will mean you are stuck with your earlier (and worse) ideas rather than the later (and best) ideas.

6) Go for the crazy

Often crazy and zany suggestions will make your brain come up with several other ideas and suggestions. They can also start new trains of ideas, such as "if this problem was an animal, what would it be" or "which superhero could solve the problem". Humour can work really well here, as can using visual images, toys, etc.

7) Keeping an idea journal

As you get better at idea generation, you will find your brain will naturally generate more and more ideas. I keep an idea journal which contains every creative idea that I have had over the last 7 years. I am now up to 1,080 ideas and they include such thoughts as:

Who in your life is allowed to interrupted you whenever they want - the larger the number of people who have that power, the lower your happiness and your quality of life?

Why do we give hundreds of pounds worth of our time away without thought when we would never give money in the same?

What if an off-licence was run as a social enterprise?

Is your career in the hands of someone else? Can someone make your work life miserable on a whim? Do the people who make decisions about your future and your life really care about you? Do you think these people are idiots?


Periodically I review these ideas and often they spark new ideas, new presentations or I find links with other projects I am involved in.

So I hope this helps you come up with lots more ideas and get the most out of groups and meetings. If all else fails, at the next meeting you have to go to, take some vodka and an iPod player and (assuming you still have a job the next day) you might be surprised just how much creativity is around and inside you.

3 comments:

Roger Farnsworth 31 March 2008 at 18:35  

According to a research report by the Economist Intelligence Unit
http://www.eiu.com/innovation
there is good news and bad on the innovation front.

On one hand, the data clearly indicate that innovation is no longer a luxury, it's an imperative. According to the survey, Seventy-one percent of those responding to the questionnaire reckoned that one-half of their company’s annual revenue came from products and services less than five years old.

On the other hand, there was good news. The general consensus had been that the winnowing process in innovation requires something like 3,000 bright ideas to end up with four development programmes— the minimum required to get one blockbuster product. “You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince,” said Art Fry, the legendary innovator at 3M. Yet 52% of the respondents reckoned they needed fewer than 25 good ideas for each successful innovation!

Dave Dawes 1 April 2008 at 01:18  

Thanks Roger and that is a great link.

I think you are right that every great idea is hidden in hundreds of poor ideas and that is why I think it is essential to be able to generate large numbers of ideas.

Do you have any tips and techniques that you use?

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