Ideas and how to find them – two tools you can use

In this second extract from In Your Creative Element, a new book about creativity in business, creativity expert and Chief Spark at training consultancy Now Go Create, Claire Bridges gives her advice for how to generate ideas when you’re stuck or feeling uninspired and proposes two idea finding tools to help crack that brief

Creativity tools help stimulate new lines of thought, sometimes taking you away from your original problem to head off on a mental detour to bring a fresh perspective to your challenge. There are hundreds of tools out there – here are two of my favourites based on my experience of working on hundreds of different creative problems. The first is a logical, step-by-step process and the other a more intuitive, leap of faith – both equally valid and designed to appeal to different ways of thinking.

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” John Steinbeck

Idea finding tool 1

Related Worlds

What is it? It’s easy to think that an idea must be completely new to the world to be radical, but an existing idea can be groundbreaking if applied in a different context. This technique assumes that somewhere in the world your problem (or a version of it) has been faced, and solved. You brainstorm similar but different ‘worlds’ to get new ideas.

How to do it: Ask yourself: exactly what is the problem to be solved? For example: how do we re-engage with lapsed customers?

In last month’s issue we looked at ways to get to a helpful ‘problem statement’. So if we restate our challenge as, ‘how to b generate desire for our products and services?’, ask yourself where else in the world a brand or individual has solved this challenge (or any variation of).

So who is good at creating desire? How about Apple, Chanel or a Tinder dating profile? Choose one, eg Chanel, and then explore that related world to see what you can ‘borrow’ to bring back to your task.

Then we list all the attributes and behaviours of Chanel. For example: beautiful packaging, expensive, exclusive, luxury, limited availability, has waiting lists, handcrafted, produces catwalk shows twice a year, creates access points via ‘cheaper’ products like perfume.

Can you take any of these to apply back to your real territory, which in this case is: how do we re-engage with lapsed customers?

Leading to ideas like:

  • Create a sales offer that has very limited availability.
  • Create your version of ‘couture’: a very high value, premium, bespoke product offer and an entry-level ‘high street’ product.
  • What’s your equivalent of a catwalk show? Could you show off or demonstrate what you’re selling in a different way? Could you create a ‘collection?’ A bespoke piece?
  • What seasonal approach could you take?
  • Chanel collaborates with unexpected people and organisations. Who could you work with to give extra appeal to your customers or to target new ones?

Why it works: This tool uses analogy and allows you to put distance between you and the problem to find new ways into the challenge.

Possible worlds to explore: Politics, sport, nature, film, food, fashion, another country, another culture, history.

Who’s it for: Anyone who wants to get out of their own category or bust industry conventions.

Good for: Mitigating risks by considering what’s successfully worked elsewhere. Getting out of a rut when you keep revisiting what you always do in a situation.

Not so good for: Ideas at speed.

Idea finding tool 2

Random stimulus

What is it? Anything at all that can be used to stimulate ideas or make connections; often objects, images or words.

How to do it: Make like a magpie and gather ephemera from your weekend – ticket stubs, a pine cone, a menu, postcard, a picture you took. Keep them in a box or online scrapbook at work and bring it out when you need a new angle in a brainstorm. Or ask people to bring an object with them.

Either let people take an item randomly or have a selection of items out for people to make their own connections to. b Frame the question for using the random stimuli. Eg, ‘this item is like… (the area you exploring)… because… what does this item/word tell us about our challenge? What does it make you think about?’

Remind others (and yourself) that first thoughts are fine – trying to silence your inner critic is a key part of the creative process. Keep going with this until you feel you have something new to explore. You can also get the participants to list the attributes of the item. So if you had a rose, you might list the attributes (shown left) which inspire related ideas.

Why it works: If you agree with Steve Jobs that creativity is “just connecting things” then you need to find more things to connect! The clue is in the name – by adding in a random aspect to your thinking you cannot predict the outcome and you will make unexpected and unusual connections.

Good for: Getting your brain warmed up, speed, high volume of ideas, variety, getting out of a rut. It’s fun. Also helpful for developing existing ideas or products and for working by yourself.

Not so good for: Devising strategic solutions, very serious or corporate environments without some explanation.

Idea generation is the stage in the creative process where you employ divergent thinking – to suspend judgement, open things out and explore how to devise many and varied options. The opposite – convergent thinking – requires prioritising the most promising ideas to take forward. During idea generation the art is deferring judgement and not closing anything down too early.

In the next issue we’ll explore convergent thinking tools to evaluate both your own and other people’s ideas.


Now Go Create offers creative training for businesses.

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