An unconventional guide to generating unconventional ideas
Even the most imaginative people get stuck in a creative drought, when they’re unable to generate a single idea. It’s painful, but it’s common. Everyone goes through it.
The difference between good minds and great minds — the latter understand that this creative block is temporary and there are ways to overcome it.
According to Steve Johnson, the author of a business best-seller “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” and an avid explorer of human creativity, there are certain conditions that prompt people to generate great ideas:
- You constantly explore your area of expertise and experiment within it.
- You recognize that idea generation isn’t a quick process: instead of going with the first thought, you marinate your ideas and let them develop over time.
- You’re open to new ideas and opinions.
- You make mistakes and reflect on them.
- You are up to date with the existing ideas and technology, and feel comfortable using them.
- You look for new uses for old inventions.
Once you get in the right state of mind, you can start pumping up your creativity through the following tips and strategies.
1. Generate as many ideas as you can
A lot of people believe in the Eureka effect and think that you can’t influence the idea generation process. A moment of sudden realisation needs to strike you like a lighting bolt.
This, however, isn’t true, and it goes against the aforementioned conditions (idea generation is an ongoing process). You need to continuously stimulate your brain for it to get into the habit of thinking in more unconventional ways.
To beat creative block, force yourself to come up with at least 10 new ideas every day. Great ideas aren’t singular, they’re surrounded by loads of other, slightly less brilliant ones. So, even if you think your thoughts are rubbish, you’ll still have something to work with.
Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein have all generated hundreds of thousands of ideas, but only a few of the bunch made them recognized geniuses. Out of quantity comes quality. Even if you have 99 rubbish ideas and one good one, you’re still winning.
2. Keep your ideas organized
Suppose you put the previous tip to good use and stick to generating at least 10 ideas a day. Then, you’ll soon end up with hundreds of ideas at your disposal. Some of them will be standalone thoughts, some — elaborate, branched out concepts with lots and lots of clarifications. If you don’t want to get lost in your thoughts, you need to keep track of everything that comes to mind.
If you’re holding brainstorming sessions, have a physical or digital whiteboard ready to note down everything you think of. Make sure to jot down both the idea and the thought process that led you to it.
If an idea randomly pops up when you’re busy doing something else, or if it comes to you in your dreams, make sure to write it down immediately. You don’t want to forget it as you proceed with your day.
You should have a dedicated notebook where you keep all your ideas. Otherwise, you risk losing a lot of great ones, simply because you can’t find the right scribbled notes scattered around your office, home, or the glove compartment of your car. Ideally, this notebook should be a digital one.
Today, there are different tools and apps that let you jot down your ideas on-the-go, and keep them in the comfort of your smartphone. You can even protect those particularly sensitive, high-profile ideas with a password, wowza!
Besides, software makes it easier to bring order to your loose notes. You can categorize them, merge them, and organize them in any other way you deem appropriate. The best apps we use to structure our ideas are:
- Miro. One of the best whiteboard tools available on the market — create mind maps, add visuals, work collaboratively.
- Trello. While this one is more of a tool for organizing projects, you can still use it for yourself. Simply create a kanban board and categorize all your different ideas that pop up in your mind into different custom columns.
- Notes. The basic iPhone app that every iOS user has by default. Notes has saved our lives at least a thousand times since its launch. You can write, attach files, scan documents, doodle, and more!
3. Try to break old patterns
Sometimes, it may feel like you’ve exhausted your resources and come up with every idea to ever exist. This, however, is far from true.
Even though the “we use only 10% of our brains” is 100% a myth, when it comes to generating creative ideas, your resources are truly limitless. All you have to do is break old patterns and act in ways you normally wouldn’t.
Once you settle into a routine, your brain starts working on autopilot, often stopping you from looking for new solutions because… Well, because you’re quite comfortable with what you already have and know.
To break out of the cycle and get a taste of fresh air, put yourself in a stressful situation.
We get it, there’s enough stress in our lives as it is… But hear us out!
In order to create new connections, you need to place yourself in environments that actually mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible.Steve Johnson
Do bits of your routine in a different way. Challenge your assumptions about the world. Mix your processes up. Hang out with new people.
4. Apply knowledge in one area to another
The best way to break old patterns is to apply knowledge from one sphere to another. Science is intertwined with art; art is intertwined with math; history has everything to do with ethics and religion, and so on.
You can use those connections to generate new ideas and cover topics that lie on the cusp of different areas. For example:
- Psychology in business
- Maths in design
- Ethics in art
There are numerous combinations of ways of knowing and areas of knowledge that you can experiment with.
5. Get social
By nature, humans are social beings. We need others to function properly. This includes generating new ideas, too.
Once you get too invested in a project you’re working on, you start losing important details. This means you’re in need of a fresh perspective.
Every person views the world through the prism of their own experience and knowledge. Granted that everyone’s experience is different, it’s likely that others will have different opinions on the same matters. This is exactly what you’re looking for.
When trying to generate new ideas, it’s best to work collaboratively. Hold a brainstorming session where you’d sit down with a group of people (both related to the project and not) and write down as many ideas you can think of. Then, present them to each other.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to ask anyone for ideas, call a focus group, present your own ideas and ask them for feedback. They can highlight flaws and, subsequently, new opportunities you didn’t pay attention to.
6. Expose yourself to new experiences and knowledge
Even if you believe that you aren’t a creative person by nature, there’s still hope for you. Idea generation is majorly fueled by consumption and not creativity. At the end of the day…
Creativity is just connecting things.Steve Jobs
The more things you have to connect, the more idea combinations you have. The more ideas you have, the higher the chance of some of them being good.
While all knowledge is good knowledge, you still need to consider what you consume.
Let’s explain this concept using an example of your body. If your diet consists solely of junk food, you can’t expect your body to receive nutrients and stay strong and healthy. Similarly, if you only consume information from low-quality sources, you can’t expect to produce great ideas.
The quality of your information is a critical factor in your ability to come up with worthy ideas. So, make sure that you filter what you read, watch, and listen to on a daily basis.
Find a selection of quality podcasts, books, newsletters, and blogs (like the VistaCreate blog, for example 😉), and turn consuming that content into a habit. Make sure you check out our content recommendations:
- Top-10 podcasts about design and creativity
- 7 inspirational podcasts for entrepreneurs
- Five books you should read if you’re about to start your first business
On top of that, to better absorb all the new information you expose yourself to, process it and share it with others. Whenever you come across something worthy of your attention, communicate it to those around you using an alternative format: discuss it with your network, paraphrase and condense it into a short tweet, or cover it in a blog post.
Another thing you need to remember is that new things aren’t limited to content only. New ideas can also stem from new experiences. So, if you’re going through a creative drought, try something you haven’t tried before — it might activate a part of your brain that will give you the next billion-dollar idea.
And we don’t mean booking a trip around the world for the next available date (although, who wouldn’t love that, right?). Taking a stroll down a path you haven’t walked before, seeing a new play at your local theater, or even waking up before your usual morning alarm are a few places to start.
7. Dive deep, then back off and take a break
When you’re trying to generate creative ideas, you should set some time aside to really dive deep into a topic and explore it in detail. Consume as much content related to it as you can: read articles, go through journals, watch videos, read tweets, discuss the subject on social media, etc. All in all, emerge yourself in it.
Then, back off and take a break. Stop thinking about it entirely, and do something else. While it might feel like procrastination, in reality, your brain is still making new connections, processing the new information, and creating new ideas.
Relax, sleep, mix your activities up a bit. Et voila! A couple of days later, there you are with a brand new idea you didn’t even know you could come up with.
8. Focus on the needs that already exist
Usually, a lot of good ideas are left untouched because they appear to be “too obvious”. Don’t be a person who ignores good solutions because they seem too easy.
When trying to generate new ideas, look for the problems that exist in the area you’re exploring and try to solve them:
- How can you save people’s money?
- How can you make people’s lives easier?
- How can you spare people from chores or tasks that make them feel uneasy?
To make sure you cover every need that exists, make sure you direct your idea generation process with frameworks. For example, you can look at:
Customer journey. Where are the customers in their journey? What is the customer context at each stage of the journey? What are their needs, wants, and pain points?
Business-model canvas. What are all the pieces of your business model? What if you changed specific pieces? What alternatives are there?
9. Make use of prompts and creative exercises
Finally, you can turn to some ready-made prompts, techniques, and exercises to awaken your creative thinking.
There are lots of techniques available on the internet, both paid and free. One of the most effective ones is “lateral thinking” by Dr Edward De Bono:
- Challenge. Map out key assumptions in the area you work in, and challenge them using “why” questions. Keep drilling down by asking why again and again to each answer. Eventually, you’ll get some useful insights to kick start your ideas.
- Random entry. Take unrelated input or a concept, and use it to spark new lines of thought. Play the association game.
- Provocation. Take a concept to the extreme, reverse usual conventions, or propose a radical alternative.