When we set out to brainstorm ideas to solve a problem, the very first solutions that we come up with are often trivial.
The ultimate goal of an ideation process is to produce breakthrough ideas. We need to explore various solutions, perspectives and angles. Alex Osborn, who coined the term brainstorming, put it nicely, “quantity breeds quality in ideation.”
We’re more likely to reach novel solutions if we accumulate as many diverse ideas as possible. This is the core of a concept which is known as divergent thinking.
We owe this concept to the psychologist Joy Paul Guilford.
He set four principles for divergent thinking. These are
Craft a set of actions which focuses on these principles, and you’ve laid the foundation for getting plenty of ideas.
What follows is a five-day action plan to stimulate divergent thinking. It’ll equip you with the tools to strengthen the four principles.
Choose a challenge to experiment with and be sure you’ve done your research and gathered enough data. After that, implement the action plan to internalize the principles and create a big pile of ideas.
Monday: Generate as many alternatives as possible
Kick off divergent thinking by focusing on quantity. The fluency principle is all about producing as many alternatives as possible. Don’t limit yourself by thinking too much about the quality of the ideas – concentrate on the numbers.
- Practice free association. Our ability to generate numerous alternatives depends largely on how experienced we are with free associating. Two essential tools for free association are mind mapping and free writing. Start experimenting with these tools today.
To exercise free association with mind mapping, take a piece of paper and place it landscape. Write your challenge in the middle of the paper. Allow your mind to wander freely. List the words that come to mind. Write down the attributes you can think of. Bring some energy by using colored pens. Shapes can trigger interesting associations, so add drawings to your mind map as well. Tony Buzan, who created mind mapping, suggests that you should use curved lines instead of straight lines while mind mapping.
Free writing is similar. You write down whatever occurs to you about the challenge for a few minutes without stopping to edit yourself.
Do the free association exercises for a few minutes to start with.
- Set quotas and use timeboxing. Under clearly defined goals, rules and constraints, creativity thrives. Two constraints commonly integrated into ideation exercises are idea quotas and time limits. Your aim is to attain a specific number of ideas in a time box, e.g. 30 ideas in 25 minutes.
Carry out another free association session, this time setting such constraints. Try different time limits and quotas to find out what works best for you.
Tuesday: Defer judgment and record everything
Today, introduce two new habits to your process in order to reinforce the fluency principle further.
- Defer judgment. How was your experience with mind mapping and freewriting yesterday? Did you pause to see if your ideas made sense? Did you analyze the outcomes in terms of executability?
An important concept of divergent thinking is to suspend judgment. You should avoid evaluating your ideas too early.
Do more free association exercises today and observe the process. Do you limit yourself by labeling your ideas as irrelevant or inapplicable? When you catch yourself doing this, remind yourself that evaluation should come much later in the creative process.
- Record each and every idea. When you make divergent thinking a habit, you’ll start gathering many ideas in a short time. It’s very likely that you’ll forget them later. If you skip recording your ideas, it can be a sign that you’re already judging them. They may not be meaningful now, but you might see them from a different angle later. Don’t evaluate – just record all of them, no matter how strange, useless or irrelevant they might seem at this stage. Whether keeping a journal, using apps or recording audio notes, make it a habit to store your ideas regularly. In addition to finding a solution to your present challenge, many of these ideas might function as initial idea sparks for future projects.
Wednesday: Quantity doesn’t necessarily mean diversity
While fluency is about quantity, the second principle, flexibility, is about diversity. Here, the aim is to reach a variety of ideas and see the challenge from as many different angles as possible. You should develop the ability to switch between different points of view, as well.
- Add new weapons to your arsenal. It’s necessary to incorporate different ideation tools to have diverse solutions. Free association allows you to uncover what you already have in your memory in a short time. But to see the problem from various perspectives, you need to employ other techniques as well.
At this point, it can be a good idea to grab a book like Thinkertoys, which gives several ideation tools that you can start experimenting with in numerous ways right away. You should especially learn the Scamper method, as it includes nine different techniques that will open up new ways to see things.
- Raise questions. Ask as many questions as possible. Avoid simple yes/no questions and opt for open questions. Ask “what else? “who else?” where else?” Build your questions in plural forms, like “in which ways …” so that you can prepare yourself for multiple answers. Don’t stop at the first plausible answer. Ask “why” and “how” questions to understand the relationships between different elements of your challenge.
Thursday: Unusual solutions
The third principle, originality, is related to novel and unusual ideas. Mind mapping and free writing might have already resulted in such ideas for you. Employing other ideation tools from yesterday might have also brought novel solutions.
To increase your chances of going beyond the obvious answers even more, you can apply another technique. It’s called forced connection, and it depends on juxtaposition and randomness. You choose something that is dissimilar to your challenge. Then, you force yourself to make a connection between the two.
- Put two things side by side which don’t belong together. Choose a word, an object, a picture, a cartoon at random. List the attributes and try to make a connection between them.
- Choose something you’re keen on. What interests do you have? Transfer your knowledge in a completely different domain to the current challenge.
- Search for quotes. To come up with something unfamiliar, you can collect quotes randomly and force a connection between them and your challenge.
Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous or strange. Therefore, remember to put off judgment today in particular.
Friday: Expand on your ideas
The last principle, elaboration, is about detailing your ideas. You focus on one idea and look for ways to develop it.
- Organize your ideas. You can use graphic organizers, like cause-effect diagrams, timelines and Venn diagrams, to structure your idea and observe the relationships between related components.
- Explain your ideas. Choose some of your ideas that stand out more than the others. How would you explain them to yourself? To others? Are they persuasive? Do you recognize their weak points? What are their strengths? What can you do to highlight your strong ideas even more? What’s missing?
In trying to explore your ideas in more detail, you’ll start to see some of them have more space to evolve, whereas you should kill some of the others. Therefore, the elaboration step will prepare you for another important concept in the creative process – convergent thinking.
The aim of an ideation process is to find the idea which you’re going to execute. To do that, activities like carrying out a thorough evaluation and narrowing down your choices are necessary.
These are all done during the convergent thinking stage. But that is the theme of another week’s action plan.