How to generate ideas – tools and techniques for ideation
by Cecilia Thirlway, on 23 Sep 2019 5 min read
You'll want to capture all the ideas that emerge from your organisation, as and when they arise, but here are nine ways to give the process a helping hand.
Whether it's in team meetings, workshops, group sessions or a spare five minutes, there's a huge range of tools and techniques that can help you get people's creative juices flowing around a problem. We've suggested a few of our favourites below, but don't forget to check out the 'Further reading' links at the end, for other places to start looking for the right ones for you and your organisation.
For tips on running idea sessions, see our other article 'How to generate ideas'.
Divergent vs convergent thinking
The important thing to remember is that generating ideas relies on divergent thinking, which is all about creating ideas with no judgement – sometimes called brainstorming, spitballing, or blue-sky thinking. This means that participants should be discouraged from assessing or critiquing ideas (using convergent thinking) in the ideation sessions themselves: that can come later on.
Tools and Techniques
A classic improvisation technique, 'Yes, And' helps you avoid the convergent thinking that can stifle ideas before they've even begun. In 'Yes, And', participants work in pairs or small groups, with one person suggesting an idea or a thought. The other participants then have to build on the idea by starting their contribution with 'Yes, And'. This is often hilarious and allows you to take ideas to their extreme, so it's a good way of warming up a team and getting them to realise that all ideas, no matter how crazy, are welcome at this stage. It often generates useful thoughts or nuggets of an idea, too.
Put up a random word or image associated with the problem on a flip chart or screen, and then generate more words or ideas through free association. Do this for two minutes, then move on to another word or image. Again, this makes a good icebreaker and warm-up exercise.
This is a useful exercise for refining your problem statement, but can also help generate ideas along the way. Put up the problem you are trying to solve on a screen or flip chart, and then ask the group why they have this problem. Discuss for a few minutes, and then try to summarise the discussion into a new problem statement. Ask 'Why?' again, and summarise the ensuing discussion into a new problem statement. When you have asked 'Why?' five times, see what the new problem statement looks like.
What, Why, Where, When, Whom?
Similar to Five Whys, this exercise encourages participants to look at every aspect of a problem. Working in teams or taking each question one after the other, create a mind map of the problem with a spoke for each question word. Use the different words to ask questions about the problem and document the results on the mind map.
Source: 'Techniques of Structured Problem-Solving' (Van Gundy, 1988)
This format for brainstorming compresses the essentials of an ideation session into one short format. The numbers 3-12-3 refer to the amount of time in minutes given to each of three activities: three minutes for generating a pool of observations, 12 for combining those observations into rough concepts, and three again for presenting the concepts back to a group. The speed is important, as brainstorming can often get bogged down and sidetracked in discussions unless there is a pressing deadline.
- 3 Minutes: Generate a Pool of Aspects. For the first three minutes of the exercise, participants are asked to think about the characteristics of the topic at hand and to write down as many of them as they can on separate index cards.
- 12 Minutes: Develop Concepts. At this point, the group is divided into pairs. Each team draws three cards randomly from the pool. With these as thought starters, the teams now have 12 minutes to develop a concept to present back to the larger group. If the two topic words are sufficient to explain the challenge, the clock starts and the teams begin. If there is any doubt, reveal a more fleshed-out version of the topic’s focus, such as “How will we become more energy-efficient next quarter?” In developing concepts to present, teams may create rough sketches, prototypes, or other media – the key is in preparing for a short (three-minute maximum) presentation of their concept back to the group.
- 3 Minutes: Make Presentations. When presenting to the larger group, teams may reveal the cards that they drew and how the cards influenced their thinking. After every team has presented, the entire group may reflect on what was uncovered.
This one is the favourite of one of our founders, Phil. It's a framework for idea generation, starting from one central theme. Eight conceptual themes grow out from the main theme and each of them are used as a central theme to generate eight more themes. Explore!
- Draw a square in the middle of your paper and write down the central theme in it.
- Think of eight related ideas and write them around the square using a new square for each.
- Take each of the eight previous themes and create 8 new themes around it. Write them in new squares.
- Blossom as far as you think is relevant.
Source: MediaLAB Amsterdam
How would Google/Nike/government/a startup/our parents/the Victorians do it?
Explore the focus question as if you were an actor like Google, Nike, a Kickstarter project, the United Nations, a local government, Ikea, etc.
Source: HyperIsland Toolbox
Reversal, or the Bad Idea
- Put up your problem statement
- Try and think of the worst ideas possible to solve this problem
- Put the ideas up on the board and then discuss them
Examine your problem using each of the elements below in turn:
- Substitute – What could you use instead? Materials, techniques, user groups etc?
- Combine – Could you bring elements together, combine different ideas, put two sources of data together?
- Adapt – What else is like this? What could you learn from other similar projects?
- Modify/Magnify/Minimise – How do you make it bigger, smaller, add things, take things away?
- Put To Other Uses – Same tools or ideas but for a different purpose?
- Eliminate – How do you make it less expensive, bulky, cumbersome, complicated? Strip things back.
- Rearrange/Reverse – What would be the opposite of this, or how would you reverse it? What if you did it the other way round?
Source: 'Thinkertoys: a handbook of business creativity' (Michalko, 1991)