How to generate ideas

Generating ideas

The innovation process frequently starts with a new idea, a flash of inspiration or a fresh perspective that can be difficult to engineer. In this article we outline some tips on how to help your people flex their creative muscles.

Ideas are often the beginning of the innovation process, but it can be tough to get people to come up with new thinking. Generating ideas requires us to think in a different way, and it can be hard to break out of our usual day-to-day patterns of thought. Here are some ways to make it easier...

Promote divergent thinking

We are all very good at evaluating options available to us and making a decision, whether we’re deciding which pizza to order, trousers to wear, or person to hire – this is known as convergent thinking. Generating ideas, however, also needs divergent thinking to make unexpected connections or come up with new ways of doing things.

There are a number of ways you can encourage divergent thinking in your people, including changing the setting in which people are thinking (why not go for a walk?), working with other people to bounce ideas off each other, having fun and playing games, and creating space and time for people not to feel pressured.

A key element is ensuring that everyone feels they can contribute anything, no matter how daft it might seem, so creating a space where no one can criticise ideas, only build on them, is really valuable. Why not try the improvisation game Yes, And, to see just how effective this is?

Empower your community

Before your people can be creative, they need to know that ideas - even those that aren't yet fully-formed - are positively encouraged. Adobe did this by creating the Adobe KickBox: an innovation pack giving any employee who wanted it various supplies to help them generate and develop ideas, including a six-stage process to follow, and a $1000 card to spend in any way they chose, with no need to get managerial approval. The KickBox helped Adobe go from generating 12-14 ideas a year to over 1,000 boxes distributed to date. (The Kickbox is now available as open source from Adobe.)

"The brilliance of the Kickbox isn’t that it gives employees a magic box, it’s that it gives them permission. And often, that’s all that required to unbox creativity." — David Burkus

Combine, experiment, have fun

Ideas often come from combining new people, ideas, concepts, or topics together, so don't be afraid to mix it up. Why not bring people together from very different parts of your organisation, or bring in friendly partners, suppliers or other members of your network to collaborate? Unexpected combinations can spark ideas or new ways of thinking, and sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to ask the obvious question.

Use tried and tested tools

There is a huge number of tools and techniques you can use to provoke creative thinking, many of them available as free resources and requiring only some pens and Post-its to get going. We've listed some of our favourite sources below, but there are many more. Don't be afraid to try things out: creative sessions are by their nature a bit rough around the edges, so experiment, fail, refine and try again. Not only will you and your colleagues learn along the way, but a culture of experimentation that is accepting of failure is one in which creativity will flourish.


Photo credit: Rawpixel


Cecilia Thirlway

Cecilia Thirlway

I'm interested in everything, but particularly in innovation, technology and intra/entrepreneurship. I can (and will!) chat with anyone, whether in a boardroom, meeting room, classroom or just over a beer. I love finding out about people, ideas and organisations and creating stories to connect them all.

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