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Generating Ideas

Generating Ideas

Generating Ideas

You and your team are now on the pathway to a creative solution to your problem. But where are the ideas going to come from? Several techniques are available to you. Some of them involve getting out and away from familiar surroundings. Others have unusual requirements for physical activity. And there are some techniques that require almost nothing out of the ordinary just a meeting that on the surface is practically indistinguishable from any other working meeting (including both face-to-face and virtual meetings).

The guidelines here explain some common idea-generating exercises that can help you and your work group move down the creative pathway you have chosen. No matter which one you choose, it's absolutely important that you state the problem so that all of the group members understand it. A fundamental consideration in your choosing an idea-generating technique is the kind of problem-solving approach you have judged to be appropriate to the situation. Each technique tends to produce ideas that cross the range between incremental and breakaway at different spots.

Brainstorming. Most people are familiar with this idea-generating method. However, some misunderstand brainstorming as meaning "free-for-all." Despite it's somewhat chaotic style, brainstorming does have rules.

  • Suspend judgment positive or negative of any idea (failure to follow this rule is the major reason why some brainstorming sessions do not produce the needed results).

  • Encourage freewheeling the wilder the idea the better.

  • Generate a large number of ideas; stress quantity over quality; value all ideas equally.

  • Cross-fertilize or build on each other's ideas; generate ideas using previous ones as launch pads; encourage people to steal, adjust, or invert ideas already presented.

Brainstorming results in a higher percentage of products that fall in the middle of the problem-solving range, a mix of moderately incremental and moderately breakaway ideas. As anyone knows who has taken part in brainstorming sessions, they are frequently punctuated with humor. Humor tends to encourage the group to break "rules" that frequently inhibit it so that group members feel free to pursue more tangential ways of solving the problem.

Brainwriting. In this idea-generating process, participants write down several ideas on different pieces of paper and then regularly exchange papers, keying new ideas off ideas already on the list. Unlike in brainstorming, there is no talking in a brain-writing session. Participants can write new ideas or modify ideas already on the paper in front of them. The papers can circulate through the group as often and as long as you want. The rules of brainstorming also apply to brainwriting. When people start laughing or act surprised by what they see on the pages, you have probably begun to dig beneath the mundane to more creative answers.

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The Brainstorming Trap

Brainstorming is a tried-and-true technique for getting ideas that lead to problem solutions, but it has one significant pitfall. If you ask people to name a color and a fruit, most of them will say red and apple. Many other first responses are similarly predictable. If you end a brainstorming session too soon, you will have recorded a completely nonrandom and uncreative list the first thing that comes to people's minds is rarely the most creative. Go ahead and record first responses as they come in, without making a judgment. But keep stating the problem, and tell the people participating in the brainstorming session that things already mentioned are off limits. You will start getting different responses, and after a few more rounds the ideas in the room will really begin to go a field.

The lesson in this example is that brainstorming sessions have to go on long enough to encourage people to branch out from their knee-jerk responses. Leading a brainstorming session is something like cooking popcorn in the days before microwave ovens shake long enough to get the kernels hot, cook as long as the energy is high and the popping sounds are coming fast and furious, and stop only when the energy and the popping sounds begin to dwindle.

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Brainwriting produces a higher percentage of direct responses. Because spontaneous group interaction is difficult in this nonspeaking technique, there is less pressure for group members to spur themselves on to ideas outside of the original problem statement. Although it permits the sharing of ideas, this technique isn't as free-form as some other techniques. Limiting people to written responses sometimes restricts how completely they are willing to express an idea. It can generate a more restrained style of creativity that moves along a path at the incremental end of the problem-solving range.

This technique has the advantage of not requiring that the people attend a face-to-face meeting. It lends itself to e-mail, although those exchanges will have to be moderated to keep group members on task. One way to manage that kind of electronic process is to have each participant reply to the moderator, who takes charge of sending ideas to the next person in the group. In addition to e-mail, specialized software programs can assist in this kind of group collaboration.

Restating the problem. As Yogi Berra once said, "It's dj vu all over again." This technique takes your group back to the original problem statement with the directive to state what they think the real problem is. For example, "Upper management says we need a more reliable lubricant for our factory engines, but what is the real problem? Is new oil the solution, or do we need new engines? Is there something that works better than oil? Can we reduce the heat and friction in the engines to make the lubricant more effective?" Restating the problem often leads to new perspectives on the problem and new approaches that might be more effective in developing a solution.

Perspectives. With this technique, the group uses a list of frameworks to stimulate idea generation. By searching through different perspectives, the group can find situations analogous to its present situation, or a problem parallel to its own challenge. Alternative perspectives can lead to ideas that can be transferred to a solution for the original problem.

Metaphor. This kind of approach lies at the heart of many creative problem-solving techniques. Working on disguised problems (problems represented in a metaphorical way) can reduce internal censorship, introduce a novel mind-set, and lead to new and valuable ideas often breakthroughs. How does a group stimulate its imagination to seek powerful metaphors and relate them to the problem at hand?

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Tread Lightly and Avoid Killer Phrases

Creativity can be difficult to spark, and it can be killed quickly. Sometimes group members will spend time scanning the leader for subtle cues, and censor their contributions according to what they perceive. If you are leading an idea-generating session, put yourself in the position of secretary, recording ideas on a white board or presentation chart so people can see them as they emerge. Another role you can play to enhance creativity is to reinforce the notion that ideas aren't owned by the person who brings them up but by the group, and so can be changed at any time and without judgment. One cynical or sarcastic remark can derail an entire session. Some phrases that can kill creative sessions include

a good idea, but

Let's sit on it for a while.

Let's form a committee.

against company policy

Who else has tried it?

costs too much

alright in theory

Be practical

too hard to administer

The old timers won't use it.

We've never done it that way.

It's not budgeted.

It's not good enough.

It needs more study.

Don't start anything yet.

We've been doing it
this way for a long
time and it works.
Why hasn't someone
suggested it before if
it's such a good idea?

ahead of the times

Let's take a survey first.

It's not part of your job.

Let's discuss it.

Let's get back to that.

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The first step is to try and find another context from which one might derive analogies. Metaphoric content can be found in the imagination of individuals in the group. It can also be found in the results of the perspectives exercise described previously or from the list on page 28. If it adopts the latter approach, it's most helpful if the group chooses a context with which it is somewhat familiar. For example, suppose your group is trying to find a way to sell panty hose to men. It might examine its perspectives list and choose "diplomacy" as a metaphoric context.

The next step is to restate the problem using the new context. The group should aim for a problem statement that is parallel to its real problem in some significant way. If, in our example of selling panty hose to men, your group chose "diplomacy" as a perspective, it might ask, How do we get the enemy to wear our uniform? or, How do we negotiate and overcome fear?

The third step is to make the metaphorical statement the subject of a brainstorming session. And finally, the last step in using the metaphor technique is to connect the metaphoric responses to possible solutions to the original problem.

Excursion technique. This creative exercise tends to generate a high percentage of breakaway ideas. It's not surprising that an approach that purposefully takes problem solvers so far from the problem results in solutions that are quite distant from the original problem definition. The idea behind this technique is to get the group's mind off the problem at hand so the ideas flow more freely. An excursion can be as simple as having group members close their eyes and visualize ideas and solutions, or it can be as involved as a trip to another location. Some samples of excursions are listed below, but you can be as creative as you like and invent your own.

Visual connections. Gather a collection of photographs, designs, or other images cut from magazines and other sources. Make sure to have a mix of single subjects and busy, complex scenes. Here are a few tips for choosing images.

  • Full-page, high-quality color photos are best (avoid illustrations).

  • Avoid advertisements, celebrities, famous places, or pictures with words.

  • Look for interesting, unusual, or paradoxical photos.

  • Gather five times as many pictures as you need so you can replace them from time to time.

You can project these images on the wall or a screen or make color copies of them and give everyone a folder. Members of the group will use these images to take their minds off the problem so they can develop related thoughts and information, and unusual ideas or novel lines of thinking. Give everyone a notepad and have them write down anything the pictures make them think of. Have them share ideas aloud as the group flips through the images. Participants are encouraged to build on ideas and images of others.

The field trip. Take the group out of the office. This isn't a trust- or team-building exercise, so rock climbing and similar adventures are probably not what you want. Instead, go to the local college library send everyone off for a book, the only rules being that it can't be a book directly related to the current problem and it can't be a book they've ever read. If the book has pictures in it, so much the better, but primarily you are looking for unexpected insights, so some random collections of text would be fine. A local zoo is another possible destination. Ask everyone to keep notes on their thoughts as they look at the animals, the facilities, and the other visitors. Visit a traveling show at an art museum or a gallery opening. A scavenger hunt in the woods of a local park would also work. Have everyone bring back something that caught their attention a leaf, a feather, a lost article left behind by another visitor, for example. Then gather the group to share its thoughts about the things it collected. As group members share their impressions and ideas, ask them to relate them to the problem at hand.

Future fair. For an excursion that's totally out of the ordinary, try an imaginary trip to the future. Tell group members to imagine that the problem they're working on has been solved in the best way possible. Their task is to find out what the solution was by interviewing someone on the team that devised the solution. Everyone in your group can put together a list of questions that they would ask were they to have the chance. Examine the list of questions for insights into solving the problem.

Novel scenarios. Use this technique to guide your group through a visualization process. If you aren't confident in your ability to do this, bring in a facilitator to help you manage the session. During the exercise, group members close their eyes and visualize as sharply as possible a guided fantasy. For the purposes of generating ideas, the fantasy is less important than the visualization. A simple, meandering tale of a traveling storyteller wandering from town to town, for example, is about all the story you need. You might use the story to tell of how the traveler comes to one town and finds people idle after the harvest but with no money for needed items of trade. In the next town, he finds people with lots of gold but hungry because of a bad harvest. He solves both problems by sharing the news between the towns the one with money and the one with foodstuffs. In a third town the traveler encounters people who have a problem similar to the one your group is required to solve. Then he wanders off to a fourth town. Ask the people in your group to imagine what he finds there.

As the exercise continues, each group member generates novel scenarios, which increases the number of stories and stimulates the group's thinking. Record the scenarios in a way that allows them to be shared with the group, and then ask the group to restate the original problem. The juxtaposition of the novel scenarios with the problem statement forces idea generation into new areas, which increases the chances that the group can find solutions outside of the usual answers.

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