Creative thinking is a skill, not a talent. With a few simple techniques, just about everyone can come up with creative ideas. And, as with all skills, the more you practice... the better you get.
Here are six techniques to help you generate creative ideas.
1. Deep-dive, then back off
Set aside a defined stretch of time to soak up as much context and details as you can about your topic or challenge. Also: clarify in your head what you want to achieve; review the main challenges or issues; and seek out perspectives from other people.
But don't try to solve anything yet. Just focus on absorbing the information.
Then stop thinking about it.
You've prepared the ground and planted the seeds, now you need to give them time to germinate.
2. Prepare your mind
Now you need to get into the right mindset to be open and receptive to new ideas. Your subconscious mind can do amazing things, but it needs free time and space in which to operate.
Think about your last really good idea. Did you have it while sitting at your desk working? I bet the answer is "no." Chances are, you were staring out the window on a train. Or in the shower. Or on a walk.
There is no linear "effort in/results out" relationship with creative thinking. Trying harder does not usually accelerate the outcome. In fact, the opposite might be true.
So relax, get into nature, do some exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Read some interesting or inspiring articles. Do things that you enjoy.
All of that recharges your energy and opens your mind to possibilities.
A bit of boredom is helpful, so switch off your phone and give your mind time to wander. Sure, it sounds unproductive. But behind the scenes your subconscious mind is busy connecting the dots, exploring patterns, and generating possibilities.
3. Capture the moment
At some point, you'll find that ideas are spontaneously popping into your head. Capture those sparks of inspiration immediately! Jot them down, together with any associations or context.
Some people carry around a notebook for that purpose. Others use an app on their phone. The method doesn't matter; just don't lose those moments of inspiration!
As ideas pop up and you jot them down, you'll often find that the simple act of doing so leads to even more ideas.
4. Provoke ideas with lateral-thinking techniques
You can also explore more structured methods of sparking new ideas. For example, by using the "lateral thinking" techniques of Dr Edward De Bono.
Traditionally, people rely on critical thinking, logic, and rationality to get to the "right" conclusion. But creative thinking is different. Our mind is a self-organizing system built upon associations among concepts. So a crazy idea can lead to another idea, and another, and another, until we arrive at a practical solution.
The following are among lateral-thinking techniques:
- Challenge. Identify key assumptions or perceptions and ask "why." Keep drilling down by asking why again and again to each answer, and you'll likely get arrive at some useful insights.
- Random entry. Take an unrelated input or concept, and use it to spark new lines of thought. For example, pick a random word (e.g. "egg") and try to relate whatever associations it generates (e.g., shiny, smooth, everything inside it) with the topic at hand.
- Provocation. Take a concept to the extreme, reverse the usual conventions, or propose a radical alternative.
5. Direct your attention with frameworks
The logically inclined among us might try using structured frameworks to direct attention and spark ideas. Those frameworks can be your own creation, or someone else's. There's no "right" framework: its value lies simply in helping you generate more ideas.
A couple of frameworks I've found useful for idea generation:
- Customer journey. What are all the stages of a customer's interaction with your product or service? What context and concerns do they have at each stage? Where are the pain points? What action do you want them to take?
- Business-model canvas. What are all the pieces of your business model as it currently stands? What if you changed specific pieces? What alternatives are there? What flow-on effects would that have and what else might need to change?
6. Multiply your ideas with concept-mapping
Once you have ideas, concept-mapping can help you generate more of them. Take a specific idea and try to identify the overarching or more abstract "parent" concept; then ask yourself what other ideas fit within that concept. A mind-map can be useful to depict this process visually and make it easier to apply the technique at several levels.
For example, let's say you want to improve sales and you have a specific idea of a back-to-school student discount. That fits within the higher-level concept of "targeting students with relevant, time-limited offers." Once you recognize that, you can brainstorm a host of specific ideas by considering other key moments in a student's life. You can also repeat this process at different conceptual levels, say by broadening the concept again to "targeting different customer segments with relevant, time-limited offers." This leads to mapping out many different segments (e.g., small businesses, first-time buyers, pensioners, frequent users), and then brainstorming offers for each segment. Before you know it, you'll have dozens of campaign ideas to consider.
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Everyone can be creative, because creative thinking is a skill—not a talent. That's great news: Even if you've never thought of yourself as particularly creative, you can get better at it over time.
So get out there and start applying the techniques outlined in this article. With a bit of practice, you'll soon be generating lots more creative ideas.