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If you’re like me, you may find that when you’re trying to think of a good idea, nothing comes to mind. But, that moment right before you fall asleep or when you’re out for a run, a brilliant idea will hit you.
But how do you get those ideas to come at more convenient times? And why do you need new ideas in the first place?
No matter what your profession is, your ability to be creative is paramount to your success. Having the ability to develop new and unique ideas is what makes you stand out from an average employee who just gets the job done. Because of this, being able to be creative in your problem-solving is a good skill to have.
Idea generation is the process of coming up with and communicating new, original, and unique concepts. This process requires instituting new solutions for challenges or old problems in both your personal and professional life. This requires you to focus on coming up with potential solutions to challenges and opportunities.
There are certainly ways to improve your idea generation skills, so in this article, we will look at seven techniques that you can try to start coming up with some new ideas of your own. But first, let’s look at why it’s important to be able to come up with new ideas.
Why Should You Learn Idea Generation Techniques?
Ideas are fundamental to innovation. Without new ideas, you can’t improve upon anything–which hinders the lifelong learning process. And while your ideas alone won’t lead to innovation, they can initiate the process for implementation, leading to development, advancement, and positive transformation.
Regardless of your role, goals, or the kinds of challenges you're facing, coming up with new ideas will improve how you operate. And on a much bigger scale, businesses and the economy depend on people’s ideas to initiate growth and increase the well-being of society. Innovation leads to new technology and businesses, which ultimately leads to more jobs.
Research has found that there is a direct relationship between the amount of ideas that are being considered and the quality of the final decision–no matter what the subject is. Professionals who study the creative process have long known that the most difficult aspect of completing a project or challenge for most people is the idea generation stage. One main reason this is true is that it’s hard to put your current beliefs and judgements aside when you’re trying to come up with ideas, so people end up paying more attention to the quality of their ideas than the quantity. People reject ideas that go against their common sense and assumptions.
Because of this, professionals have found that it’s important for people to be able to think outside of the box and break their impressions and thought patterns to create new connections that haven’t yet been made.
If you recognize these barriers to generating ideas, you can address and surpass them to become someone who is known for being innovative and creative when it comes to addressing challenges that you face in your personal and professional life.
Let’s take a look at some techniques you can use to develop this skill.
7 Idea Generation Techniques to Overcome Your Next Challenge
1. Mind Mapping
If you’re a visual person, mind mapping could be a great option for you. Mind mapping was developed as a method for generating new ideas through association. This process ends in a working document that is similar to the outline you may write for a paper, but without the order or strict structure.
A mind map framework is non-linear, colorful, organized, and intuitive, making it a memorable and user-friendly tool to use. Mind mapping is a great way to brainstorm all of your ideas surrounding a central concept and help you pick out the best content to expand upon.
When creating a mind map, you’re making a visual representation of your thoughts to help you with analyzing and recalling everything you’ve come up with. Your diagram will ultimately display all of the actionable tasks, concepts, and ideas in categories surrounding your main topic or the challenge you’re facing.
Extensive research has been done on mind mapping and the idea behind it, and many experts have come up with the same conclusion: Mind Mapping helps engage your whole brain, which creates a potent way of thinking. And, by focusing on key ideas that you’ve put into your own words, you can identify connections between them and map your ideas in a way that will help you to further understand the challenge you’re facing.
Additionally, the images used in mind maps are more memorable (people recognize images at a rate of 85-95%) and inviting than simple words written on paper, which can help you produce and come up with even more ideas, especially when compared to when you’re simply making a written list.
Here are some examples of mind maps to check out.
2. James Altucher’s 10 Ideas Habit
Bitcoin expert and entrepreneur, James Altucher, asserts that we have an idea-driven economy. Work, production, and even execution can be outsourced, but your ideas are the only thing that you have full control over.
Altucher teaches that we all have an “idea muscle” that we need to exercise like we do any other muscle. Once you build this muscle up, you can become an “idea machine”–which he describes as someone who can quickly and easily come up with ideas and solutions in any type of situation.
Here is what you do: Buy a waiter’s pad and write down ten ideas every day. As you do this, you will realize that there are no limits to the amount of ideas you can have. You can think of ten ideas for anything:
No matter what you’re focusing on, come up with ten answers to the question.
The trick here is to not feel like you have to list ten great ideas. Just focus on getting the ideas down on paper.
In one year, you will have come up with 3,650 ideas–most of which will be bad. But, you need to try things out and fail to see which ideas gain traction and which go in the trash. So get on board with the idea of testing, failing, testing again, improving, tweaking, failing, and testing again until you get it right. The only way you will keep improving is to keep coming up with new ideas and follow through with each one until it’s clear that it won’t be prosperous.
This activity will continue to exercise your aforementioned idea muscle, which will strengthen your ability to “fail quickly” and recover and move on to the next great thing.
Becoming an idea machine means that you will never stop being able to generate ideas. This will give you endless opportunities to create value both for yourself and for other people.
Wondering where to store your ideas? Check out our review of the best idea journals here.
3. Brain Dump
If you want a less structured way of generating ideas, you should consider doing a brain dump. This technique is often referred to as the “mother of all idea generation techniques” because this is the first known idea generation technique of its kind. Doing a brain dump (otherwise known as brainstorming) involves coming up with a lot of solutions or ideas regarding a topic, with your focus being on the quantity of things you can come up with (over the quality).
During this process, no ideas are too big or too small, too complex or too easy, or too tame or too wild. The point is to come up with a wide variety of ideas that may be able to work together in some way to form one single great idea.
You can do a brain dump in a group setting or alone. In a group setting, you can bounce ideas off of each other. Either way, you will simply write down anything that comes to mind so you can focus on just one thing at a time without having to juggle all of your ideas in your head and become overwhelmed and worried you will forget something. (Use one of these printable brain dump worksheets for a more organized way of writing your ideas down.)
After writing everything down, create some order to your list–whether it’s by category or some sort of ranking system. Once your list is organized, take a short break to let your brain rest from thinking about all of these things. This break is important, because when you come back to your list, you will be able to easily identify any items that you want to cross off the list and determine which ideas stand out that you want to expand upon.
From here, you can turn your original, unorganized brain dump into a specific plan of action to accomplish your goal or overcome your challenge.
4. Role Play
Role playing has been used as a tool for achieving various outcomes for ages. When you take a “what if” scenario and project it into the future, you’re indulging in a form of role play. While you can’t control the outcome of the scenario in real life, you’re doing some forward thinking by role playing to anticipate some potential conditions and practice some options to help you influence the result.
Sometimes it’s hard to effectively communicate through words. Similarly, it can be hard to understand what other people need or want unless you put yourself in their position. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes–whether that is an imaginary person or someone else you’re actually working with, you can gain the necessary insight to generate some brilliant ideas. If you’re working on a team, try to embrace each other’s points of view to come up with a new idea that incorporates a variety of perspectives.
Role playing is often used when companies are doing research and development and they want to try out some ideas while doing market research so they can tweak their processes as needed. Research has found that role playing is a good trick to use for when you’re:
Role playing can help people come up with some unexpected ideas. Throughout the exercise, allow others–both role players and onlookers–to observe how the scenario plays out and offer comments (or write them down to discuss later) when they have an idea. Observers are very beneficial in this process because they can offer their focused attention, observations, and feedback.
5. Reverse Thinking
This technique is a fun variation of brainstorming. It involves doing the exact opposite of what you would think: rather than trying to come up with ideas to meet your goals, try to think of ways that you could drive your progress away from your goal.
If you have been focused on a challenge for a long time and you just feel stuck, reverse thinking can force you to think about the challenge in a completely different way and come up with a wide variety of new ideas that you could use to solve it.
Start by rephrasing the challenge in a way that makes you look for ways to create problems, not solutions.
For example, if you’re trying to double your followers on social media, think of ways you could ensure that no one ever finds your social media account and those who currently follow you hit the “unfollow” button. Here are some possible ideas:
Once you have come up with ideas to meet your negative goal, expand on them and get more specific. Finally, reverse these to go back to match your original objective.
The process of this could be as follows: One way no one would be able to find you or your business on social media is if they don’t have your contact information or don’t know you exist. And if you don’t spread the word through marketing or business cards, people would only know about you if a current follower informed them. So, how can you be sure you will never get a new follower? Stay quiet. Don’t let anyone know about your site.
Then, reverse that. So, “Never tell anyone about my site” becomes, “Always tell people about my site–advertise in both online arenas and through in-person networking.” Then, expand upon that:
This idea generation technique has an advantage because it is often fun and encourages laughter as people come up with ridiculous negative ideas. However, it’s also beneficial because it can get people on board with the ideation process so you can come up with more original ideas.
6. Questioning Assumptions
No matter what your profession is, you probably live according to some unspoken rules or beliefs. These are probably things that everyone follows in the industry without ever questioning them.
However, in our society of accelerated change, we can’t sit back and keep things how they’ve always been. We should view how we see and do things as just one of a variety of options, and think about whether or not our assumptions about how things should be could be preventing the positive change we’re looking for.
When you question an assumption–during any phase of a development process– you can start to entertain new ideas that can help you think of unprecedented ways to solve some age-old problems. You don’t have to assume that conventional thinking is the only way to function.
To question assumptions, start by listing about 20 beliefs or values that are related to your industry (whether they’re true or not) and consider new ideas under the pretense that these formerly held beliefs are not true. Think about all of the different facets of your work, such as beliefs held by your customers, distribution, and the manufacturing process, and suspend all of your judgement as you come up with new ideas.
7. Social Listening
Idea generation certainly doesn’t have to be done alone. If employees stay in the presence of others who are in the same industry, they can put their heads together to conceptualize a new idea. This is a great activity if you’re finding yourself in a thinking rut. Consider talking to your LinkedIn connections to start some complex conversations and gain refreshing perspectives to think outside of the box.
Alternatively, you could listen to other people who have an interest in the industry (but don’t work in it) to see what your target audience has to say about a topic. Use message boards and social media to find new ideas and perspectives that are coming directly from your end-users.
And if you want to be direct about it, create an online poll to ask people what their unmet needs are in a product. You can use Google Forms, Survey Monkey, Typeform, and other platforms to quickly create and send a survey to garner ideas from others.
Final Thoughts on Idea Generation Techniques to Overcome Your Next Challenge
It’s true that it can be difficult to come up with new high-quality ideas. People are stuck in their ways and stick to routines, which makes it challenging to create something new.
Use these idea generation techniques to break out of that rut and develop new plans to overcome the next challenge you face.
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.