2 essential idea generation techniques

When we’re trying to generate lots of new ideas we often try too hard. What we really need to do is stop trying and simply brainstorm whatever comes to mind. However this can be really hard to do, because a) we look at the problem / issue / question from our own right-here-right-now perspective and b) we start looking at the problem / issue / question exactly as we understand it. If you’ve ever run or participated in a really frustrating, empty well of a brainstorm, I’m willing to bet that one or both of these factors hampered everyone’s efforts. I wouldn’t start from here.

Two essential idea generation techniques can help groups break free from getting stuck in the ‘what-the-problem-is-right-now-in-my-view’ desert. 1. Change perspective and 2. Change the issue. Here’s how they can work:

1. Change perspective

Why? It can be very liberating to look at a problem through someone else’s eyes. We’re being given permission to come up with ideas that aren’t ‘ours’.

How? So let’s say you’re concerned about an imminent competitor launch. What would these people do?

In practice – prepare a selection of photos. Divide a larger group into smaller groups of 3-4 people or with up to 6 people stick together – and you can try this as an individual activity in a smaller group. Ideally you’ll have tables for each group to work on. Give each group a photo, sheet of flip chart paper and coloured pens, then have them generate ideas in answer to the question ‘What would [this person] do about the problem?’ for just 3-5 minutes (very short time frames prevent pontification). Call time and ask each group to pass their photo to their neighbouring group, repeat the process and keep passing photos round until all are done. Or you can raise energy levels by keeping the photos / flip chart paper at a table and have groups move round to generate ideas, building on what they find from the previous teams. Allow everyone to look at the different ideas, but don’t critique and evaluate at this stage (Why? See my post ‘After the brainstorm session: so now what?’).

Variations – brief each participant beforehand to bring a photo of a famous person (real or fictional – cartoon characters can be great). This gets them involved beforehand and it’s always interesting to see people’s choices. I’ve seen ‘What would Beyonce do?’generate some very brave ideas.

Tip – build a broad selection of visuals; from websites (check copyright), postcards and of course your own photos.

2. Change the problem

Why? We can stay stuck if we simply look at the problem as it stands right now. We can be blind to our product / service’s flaws and/or its innate strengths. This technique helps us look at it differently.

How? Thinking about your product or service. How is it like one of these things?
Junk food?
A mountain?
A nutcracker?
A holiday?

In practice – prepare a selection of visuals. Again, I find it really helps to have visual stimuli, not just talk ‘as if’. Use the process as before, but I’d advise mixing up the teams or allowing people to work alone for a change. Distribute the visuals and ask people to generate answers to the question ‘How is [the product / service] like [the visual]?’ for just 3-5 minutes. Give everyone the opportunity to look at the various ideas.

Variations – you can brief each participant beforehand to bring a household object or something of sentimental value. If they forget, they’ll just have to improvise (tip: shoes can be good).

Tip: if you’re in a venue where groups can work outdoors, working outside can really help get them out of ‘meeting mode’.

By now, your group will need a break.

You may also find this blog post useful: Facilitating idea generation – DOs and DON’Ts.

Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’ and ‘The Feedback Book’

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