Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.
This is the third of a five part series or articles that explores the creative problem solving process. Each article builds on the next; taking you through a series of steps to help you solve any life or business challenge you face. Here are links to all articles within this series:
- Define Your Problem
- Investigate Your Problem
- Re-Imagine Your Idea
- Engineer Plan of Action
- Execute and Master
As you read through these articles, it is highly recommended that you have a problem in mind that you can work with. This will help you to immediately put these ideas into practice. Only in this way will you gain optimal value from this process.
The Purpose of this Step
The purpose of this step is to come up with a solution/s that can help you successfully overcome your problem. This will of course typically involve generating a wide variety of ideas. It’s kind of a hit-and-miss process where you are encouraged to come up with some wild, crazy and wacky ideas using brainstorming and creative thinking techniques.
Many of your ideas will probably not be viable, however there will be a few that you can work with moving through into the fourth step of this creative problem solving process.
Having previously clearly defined your problem within the first step, and having investigated the intricacies of your problem within the second step, it’s now time to gather the insights you have collected and use them to generate some possible solutions to the problem at hand.
Generating a Plethora of Ideas
As mentioned above, this step isn’t about coming up with just one viable idea that is guaranteed to work. It’s rather about generating a plethora of possible solutions to your problem. And of course this will most likely end up being a little hit-and-miss.
As you work through this step you will likely generate some poor ideas that may not lead anywhere. This is actually a good thing, and something that you are encouraged to do.
Albert Einstein had many theories about how the universe worked before he came up with his Theory of Relativity. The same is true of inventors such as Thomas Edison who undertook approximately 1,000 experiments before he managed to invent the light-bulb as we know it today. However, for him this wasn’t a fruitless exercise. In fact, for him each failed experiment was a step in the right direction. Therefore his 1,000 failed experiments were nothing but stepping stones to his ultimate goal.
Approaching this idea generation phase in the same way that Thomas Edison conducted his light-bulb experiments will help you to value every idea you come up with no matter how silly it may appear to be. Who really knows; what might seem silly now may very well lead to a key insight down the track that can help you come up with a viable idea to solve your problem. You won’t know until you try. 🙂
Having said that, it’s therefore of paramount importance that you focus on the quantity of ideas rather than the quality of ideas. And of course you must do this without self-criticism or judgment.
This stage isn’t about scrutinizing your ideas, it’s rather about looking at possibilities that may exist to help you move forward in a better way. This approach of course may not be easy and certainly may not come naturally for you. However, by keeping things simple, by having an open mind, and by encouraging a childlike curiosity, you will make good progress through this stage of the creative problem solving process.
In order to cultivate a childlike curious nature, it’s important to prime your brain by consistently asking open-ended questions such as:
In what ways…?
Only with an open heart and mind will you generate the necessary ideas you need to help you solve your problem effectively.
The Creative Idea Generation Step
While brainstorming ideas it’s absolutely paramount that you do not succumb to the perfectionist trap. This isn’t about perfection. In fact, great ideas are born through mistakes and failure, and of course mistakes and failure are often a result of the implementation of a poor idea.
With every failed attempt you make you will learn something new and valuable that will help you generate new insights and ideas to help you move forward through your problem in a better way. It’s therefore vital that you stay open to all possibilities. Only in this way will you optimize your brainstorming sessions.
To begin the brainstorming session, take a look at all the data, insights and information you have gathered about your problem within the first two stages of this process, and ask yourself:
What new ideas could I generate from the information I have collected?
How can I explore possible solutions to this problem?
What are some possible solutions to this problem?
Where could I borrow ideas from?
Who could provide me with some unique insights and perspectives?
These questions are designed to prime your brain and get you thinking about possible solutions or ways you can successfully work through your problem. However, these questions alone won’t get you too far. They are essentially only the tip of the iceberg. To solve this problem you will need to dive deep below the surface and explore possible solutions in a variety of different ways.
With these questions at the forefront of your mind, here are some creative challenges you can work through that will help you to explore possible solutions to your problem:
The Random Magazine Challenge
Peruse random magazines, photos or websites and look for anything that jumps out at you that may help answer your questions. For instance while going through a magazine, an article or image might stand out that can provide you with a small glimpse of how you could potentially solve your problem. However, in order to make this work for you, you must be very proactive and be willing to ask some tough questions that can potentially help you find the answers you are after.
The Problem Solving Mind Map
Create a mind map that breaks down your problem and possible solutions to this problem from a variety of angles and perspectives. Each branch of the mind map could for instance represent a possible solution or path moving forward to help you solve your problem. Just keep exploring and expanding each branch until you reach that “aha” moment when everything starts to make perfect sense. 🙂
The Non-Stop Writing Challenge
Pull out a blank notebook and just begin writing anything that comes to mind about your problem for 30 minutes straight. Yes, your writing hand may hurt, but the pain will be worth the trouble once you figure out how to effectively solve your problem. 🙂 Remember though that no idea is a bad idea. And if by chance absolutely nothing comes to mind, then just write down what you ate for breakfast; all the while keeping your brainstorming questions in mind. You just never quite know where your story about your breakfast may take you next. 🙂
The Poetry Challenge
Take out a blank sheet of paper and write a poem about your problem and possible solutions to this problem. If you can’t write poetry then all the better. 🙂 There’s nobody there to scrutinize your work. So feel free to simply relax your way into this process. Or alternatively you could try writing song lyrics while keeping the above brainstorming questions in mind.
If you get stuck on both accounts, then look up some poetry online or delve into some random song lyrics and explore the words, patterns and meanings; all the while keeping your brainstorming questions at the forefront of your mind.
The 101 List Challenge
Take out a lined blank sheet of paper and number it from 1 to 101. Now commit yourself to generating 101 ideas to help solve your problem in one sitting without any breaks. Just write whatever comes to mind without judgment as quickly as possible.
What you will typically find is that as you make progress through your list ideas will start to snowball. Initially you will generate some surface ideas that you have typically thought about numerous times before, however as you move through the list you will be forced to dig deeper into your thoughts. As such many early ideas you generate will sprout other ideas that you hadn’t considered before. And the further you go up your list the more layers you effectively peel back until you eventually get to that one core solution that you have been searching for.
The Dictionary Challenge
Pull out a dictionary (the physical variety if possible) and randomly open a page. Select a word on that page; get familiar with its meaning, and then write it down on a piece of paper. Now open up another random page and select a different word to write down on your piece of paper. Do this ten times so that you have a total of 10 words on your page.
Now take some time to look over these words while keeping your brainstorming questions in mind. It’s very possible that these words can provide you with key insights that can effectively help you to generate a solution for your problem.
The Doodling Challenge
Take out a sketchbook or just a random blank sheet of paper without any lines, and begin doodling your problem. You can start by doodling a representation of your problem in the middle of the page, then in the surrounding area doodle any solutions that come to mind.
Your doodling skills are not being tested here. It really doesn’t matter how your doodles look. It’s the process of doodling that is of most value here because while doodling your brain is more relaxed and free to think in a more flexible way.
You can of course mix doodles with words, but the challenge here is to use doodles as much as possible to explore the problem and possible ideas that come to mind.
Re-Imagine Your Ideas
Having gone through one or more of the seven creative idea generation challenges above, you should now have a plethora of ideas for solving your problem. Now, of course many of these ideas might not seem like much on the surface, however we haven’t yet finished with our exploratory journey. Therefore, what may at the moment seem a little fuzzy and hazy might yet turn out to be the breakthrough idea you have been searching for. 🙂
For this step of the process, take 10 ideas that you would like to work with. These don’t necessarily need to be the most viable ideas, but rather ideas that you see potential in exploring a little further.
Taking one of these ideas at a time, let’s now go through a series of questions that can help you to explore the idea in a number of different — and maybe somewhat surprising ways. However, please do bear in mind that even though you are working with one idea at a time, it’s still of value to stay vigilant of all your other ideas; including the ones that didn’t make your top 10 list. After all, it’s very possible that a random idea you have completely disregarded up to this point could hold a key insight you have been searching for.
Restructure Your Idea
To begin with, let’s ask a series of questions that will help you to restructure your idea. This is essentially all about moulding and reshaping your idea in numerous ways so to help you see the idea in a different and possibly more favorable light. Ask yourself:
What specifically could I add to this idea? (elements from other ideas)
How can this idea be modified? (changed in some way to fit your needs)
How does this idea compare with another one of my ideas?
How are these ideas similar? How are they different? Why is this significant?
What if I combined two or more ideas? What could be possible?
How about I exaggerate this idea? How would that change things?
What other possible uses could this idea have that I hadn’t thought of before?
How could I rearrange this idea in an original way that could better suit my purpose?
What would reversing this idea do? How would it look? What would be possible?
What could I possibly subtract from this idea that might help improve things?
In what other context could I potentially view this idea? What insights does this provide me with?
Pose What If Scenarios
The next set of questions is built around “what if” scenarios. These are scenarios that explore what could be possible without any boundaries or restrictions. Ask yourself:
What if I was a billionaire? What would be possible? How could I make this idea work?
What if I was blind or deaf? How would I make the most of this idea?
What if the world was colorless? How would that change my view of this idea?
What if this one ridiculous idea I have completely disregarded up to this point actually worked? What would I need to do to make it work?
There are of course plenty more “what if” questions you could ask yourself. Therefore feel free to use your imagination and pose some additional questions that expand the possibilities.
Explore Your Idea Using Lenses
Lenses are a fantastic way to explore your ideas from unique vantage points and perspectives. Yes, some creativity is required as you will need to mentally place yourself into random people and objects, however you can certainly have a lot of fun with this process even if you don’t see yourself as having much of an imagination.
To get this exploration started, begin by asking yourself:
How would I view this idea if I was a child?
Now of course the child in the above question is the lens that we are using. So you are effectively putting yourself into the mind of a child and seeing the idea from their perspective. This of course can be very helpful as typically a child will see things very differently than an adult. As such, this lens can provide you with very unique insights about your idea that maybe you hadn’t considered before.
Looking at this idea using the child’s lens could potentially bring to mind further questions that can help you explore this idea in greater depth and detail. A child of course has a very curious nature and they often ask very random questions that can lead you down interesting paths.
Now, of course a child’s lens isn’t the only lens you can potentially use. You could for instance use the lens of Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein. You could also use the lens of an artist, explorer, shepherd or scientist. Or you could use the lens of imaginary characters such as Harry Potter and Bugs Bunny or of insects such as an ant or bee. Likewise lenses built around inanimate objects such as a tree or rock can also be of value as well.
Every lens you use will immediately put you in a different frame-of-mind. And within this new frame-of-mind you will begin asking different kinds of questions that will help you to explore your idea from unique angles and perspectives that you most likely never considered before.
Explore Your Idea Using Metaphors
The final idea exploratory method you may like to consider comes in the form of metaphors and analogies.
Metaphors and analogies are used constantly to help us make sense of the world we live in. In fact, they shape our understanding of the world and subsequently our mental model of reality. Moreover, they assist us with making more effective decisions about the events and circumstances of our lives. They also help inspire, move and motivate us forward each day.
A metaphor is basically an implied comparison that brings together two dissimilar objects or things. The two things that are being compared makeup the metaphor, which asserts that two things that are not alike are in fact the same.
Just like a metaphor, an analogy asserts that there is a connection between two dissimilar things, however, an analogy implies that there is actually a difference between these two things, while a metaphor treats them as being the same.
When it comes to exploring your ideas, metaphors and analogies can help you to see these ideas within a different context. This is of value because within this new context you will be able to generate unique insights that weren’t available to you before.
In order to come up with an effective metaphor for your idea and associated problem, ask yourself:
What does this idea remind me of?
What metaphor could I use to better explore this idea?
How could I potentially play with this metaphor?
Metaphors are supposed to be fun. As such, it’s helpful to make them funny, outrageous and as interesting as possible. Only in this way will you gain more value from this process.
Here are some examples of questions you can ask yourself that can help you explore your ideas using metaphors and analogies:
What animal is most like this idea? How is this helpful? Why?
How does a hamburger provide a solution? How is this helpful? Why?
How about combining this idea with a shoe? How is this helpful? Why?
How might a cold pizza provide a solution? How is this helpful? Why?
What if this idea was built upon a road-map? What then?
How might an iceberg help expand this idea?
As you can see, the types of questions that can be asked are limited only by your imagination. I would therefore like to encourage you to randomly generate some additional questions that will get you thinking about things in new ways. Only in this way will you gain the necessary insights to help you work through your problem most effectively.
Now that you have taken the time to re-imagine your ideas, I’m sure you have managed to generate some very interesting and unique solutions to the problem at hand. However, even if you haven’t yet come up with something viable that might work effectively in your situation, then don’t despair because the incubation period is upon us. 🙂
Idea Incubation essentially means to take a break from the creative problem solving process and instead focus on other things. For instance you could go for a long walk in the park, read your favorite book, or you could even take a nap. The purpose here is to separate yourself from the mental work you did within the previous step by giving your subconscious mind time to process all that information.
This period of incubation has no specific time frames. It can last overnight or it can last for several days, weeks, or even months.
The general idea with this is to refocus yourself on something else that helps you relax, but to also keep a vigilant eye on the signals that your subconscious mind sends your way.
As you spend time on other activities such as exercise, listening to music, meditation, daydreaming or just relaxation, your subconscious mind is at work mulling over all the ideas you brought to the surface during the Re-Imagining step of this process. Your subconscious mind keeps exploring possibilities while you’re focused on other areas. Then when you least expect it you may experience an “aha” moment when all of a sudden you have crystal clear clarity about what you must do to successfully overcome your problem.
Now of course this period of incubation takes time and patience. It’s not something that can be rushed. The ideas will come, however you need to be willing and able to wait it out, while also being vigilant of the signals your subconscious mind sends you.
Albert Einstein often talked about how ideas came to him through dreams. In fact, his Special Theory of Relativity came to him within one such dream. However, it only came to him because he had done all the prior work before hand to prime his subconscious mind. Without that earlier effort his dreams would have essentially been meaningless.
But of course for Albert Einstein it didn’t stop there. The subconscious mind only gives us glimpses of what is possible. It’s then up to us to interpret those visions and turn them into concrete ideas to help us work through our problems most effectively. Therefore Einstein’s experience can also be your experience as long as you put in the work beforehand to prime your subconscious, and put in the work afterwards to expand on the possibilities.
What’s Up Next?
Having successfully completed this stage, you should now have in mind several viable ideas that you can work with to help you solve your problem. Within the next stage (#4) of the creative problem solving process we will take those ideas and build an effective plan of action for bringing your ideas to fruition.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
Did you gain value from this article? Would you like to keep these concepts at the forefront of your mind? If so, then you might like to download the accompanying mind map reference poster to your iPad, tablet or computer. The map presents you with a quick overview of this article. It’s designed specifically to help improve your memory and recall of this information so that you can better integrate these concepts into your daily thoughts, habits and actions. Your purchase will also go a long way towards supporting the further development of these maps.
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