12 Powerful Idea Generation Techniques
Looking for your next great idea? Stuck on a tough problem? Or maybe you simply want to develop your creative skills. Whatever the case may be, idea generation techniques can help, and they’re a whole lot of fun. Idea generation techniques are used to improve critical thinking, stimulate creativity, and solve complex problems. They’re great for group collaboration or for developing your ideation skills on your own.
We compiled a list of 12 of our favourite idea generation techniques that you can use to hone your ideation skills and solve whatever problems you or your organization are currently facing.
12 Idea Generation Techniques
1. Start Solo
We are big fans of starting solo. This idea generation technique only applies to group ideation, but it’s an important one to cover.
Before ideating as a group, allow everyone to begin generating ideas on their own. As a group, the loudest voices are always heard first, and hearing other people’s ideas can cloud your own. Starting solo gives everyone the opportunity to come at the problem from their own unique angle. This way, you have as many points of view as you have people, which gives you a lot to work with before you start combining ideas and ideating together.
💡 Learn more: 6 Reasons to Start Solo in Idea Generation
2. Forced Connections
Like a lot of the idea generation techniques on our list, the name says a lot. The forced connections exercise forces you to make connections between two (or more) seemingly random things. What do a candy cane and a canary have in common? How are Han Solo and your coffee machine connected? It’s up to you to use your wild imagination to make these connections.
Candy canes and canaries might spark a long list of words that start with “can,” or you might decide a candy cane could make a perfect perch for a canary.
Maybe your coffee machine holds the magic piece of equipment needed to repair the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive? Maybe the dark coffee setting on your machine is a secret message from The Dark Side?
The more random items, words, thoughts, people, etc., you add, the more difficult coming up with a connection becomes. It’s best to start with two, but you can work your way up to more.
There are a number of ways to begin this exercise. You can use a random word generator, children’s flashcards, or simply point to a random word in a dictionary or book. What the random things specifically are doesn’t matter—it’s up to you to work your creative and problem solving muscles to force a connection, no matter how far out the ideas may seem.
3. Free Association
With the free association technique, ideas are discovered through a chain of connected thoughts. All you need is an open mind and one single starting point.
You can begin with a problem you are trying to solve or a random starting point to practice your creative thinking skills. What comes to mind when you consider your starting point? What does it make you think of next? Continue the chain of ideas again and again to uncover a number of ideas branching out from your original thought.
The key here is to not judge or edit. Keep adding ideas whether you think they have value or not since any bad idea might jog a great one next. Moving as quickly as possible can help you push forward without editing your own ideas. Challenge yourself to come up with as many free associations as possible in a limited amount of time.
4. Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is very similar to free association, acting as a map of your ideas. Again, you begin with a starting point, this time in the centre of a page or screen. Continue branching your ideas on the map from the starting point, connecting alike ideas and relationships.
There are many online mind mapping tools available, ranging from free to paid services. You can begin a free mind map in seconds on MindMup, sign up for free with Kumu, or download a desktop tool for free using XMind.
5. The Wishing Exercise
The wishing exercise pushes you to dream up the impossible. What ideas could you come up with if your every wish could be granted? There are NO LIMITS.
Think of it as an unlimited budget, unlimited genie wishes, or a world where anything is possible. What new ideas does this help you discover? Don’t worry about any restraints as you complete this exercise. The process will help you rid yourself of perceived limitations and dream up ideas you would never have thought of otherwise.
Once you complete the exercise, you can then bring the ideas back to reality. What elements of your dreams are actually possible? What changes would make them possible?
6. Worst Ideas
The worst ideas exercise allows you to free yourself from failure. Far too often, we shy away from our wildest ideas for fear of getting it wrong. With this exercise, getting it wrong is the whole point. It allows you to open up and push your boundaries, which can be especially difficult during group ideation sessions.
People are afraid of getting the answer wrong, but with idea generation, there is no right answer yet. Use this exercise as an opportunity to express the worst ideas you can come up with. What’s the worst way to solve your problem? What’s a business idea that’s absolutely sure to fail?
The simple act of pushing yourself to discuss bad ideas is a healthy way to let loose and reduce your assumptions. Additionally, at the end of ideating, you can take these ideas and discuss what makes them bad ideas. What would happen if you did the opposite? What new ideas does this stir up?
7. Question Your Assumptions
What assumptions do you have about the problem you are trying to solve? Assumptions may be those you hold yourself, assumptions others have of you or the problem, or external societal assumptions. What if you challenged those assumptions?
Gather all of the assumptions you have about a problem and consider what would happen if you dropped them altogether. What if you did the opposite of what you would normally do? What would happen? What ideas does this illuminate?
8. How Many Ways Can You Use a Brick?
How many ways can you use a brick? It’s time to find out. This exercise pushes your creative thinking skills to form as many unique ideas as possible.
Start simple and continue to branch out. You could use a brick as a paperweight, a mini stepping stool, or a weapon. If you think about it more, you could also use the holes in the brick as a pencil or toothbrush holder. Let your mind wander into the absurd. You could use it to stop your car from rolling or give your child a brick instead of coal for Christmas.
Record as many ideas as you can come up with. If you are completing this exercise as a group, the key is to come up with as many unique ideas as possible. Write each idea on a new Post-it, and group any ideas that are the same. If the same idea is thought of by someone else, it doesn't count. Each totally unique idea counts as one point. It can become a competitive game that pushes you to think way outside of the box.
If you’ve already completed the brick exercise, change to another object. How many ways can you use a coffee filter? How many ways can you use old Post-its? How many ways can you use a pencil?
What would your ideas look like if they were sketches or pictures instead of words? It’s important right off the bat to understand that you do not need to have artistic abilities to sketch your ideas—not being great at drawing is actually part of the fun.
Sketch solutions to a problem as well as any ideas you come up with. What new ideas does the sketch reveal? Visuals have a way of provoking our minds in a way that words do not. If you are working in a group, share your sketches and ask others what they see. What new ideas resonate with them based on your sketch?
📒 Try our Design Thinking Notebook, which includes dotted pages and a guide to the human-centred design process.
Bodystorming gets you physically involved in the act of idea generation and problem solving. Depending on the problem you are trying to solve, you can go about this in a number of different ways.
Acting out a scenario can reveal new ideas or potential roadblocks. You can also immerse yourself within the problem space. This could be acting out and imagining the problem or physically traveling to a location. For example, in terms of product design, you might explore the physical location where your product will be used. What do you notice? Put yourself in the shoes of the potential user. What does it feel like to use the product in their environment?
If you are unable to go to an actual location, you can imagine one or use props to inspire your imagination. The act of physically immersing yourself in the problem space promotes empathy, helping you to see things the way other people do, thereby generating ideas you would never have thought of otherwise.
11. Go for a Walk
Let's take it all back to basics! Ideas aren’t always there, and sometimes when we need them most, no matter how hard we try or how many techniques we deploy, we just can’t come up with anything more.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to put the problem to rest and come back to it later. Going for a walk can reset your brain and get you to see the problem from another perspective. When you go for a walk, the problem you are trying to solve will continue to marinate in your subconscious.
As you walk, take in your surroundings. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? Stimulating your senses of sight, sound, and smell will help you see a problem from a fresh perspective.
When you come back, look at the problem again. What new ideas do you have after your experience out in the world? It can help to have a pocket notebook with you just in case you strike idea gold while you’re out in the world. In fact, we recommend always keeping a pocket notebook and pen/pencil with you wherever you go; you never know when a great idea will strike! 📝
12. Learn by Trying Something New
Trying something new will stimulate your brain, which can spark new ideas. The more new things you try and learn, the better you will be at idea generation.
Complete an activity unrelated to the problem you’re trying to solve. This can be anything from reading a new book to visiting a place in your community you’ve never been before. Keep an open mind and get out of your comfort zone a bit for this one. The stimulation from trying new things or learning something new will help you make brand new connections when solving future problems.
Some ideas to get you started:
- Cook a food you’ve never cooked before.
- Visit a restaurant in your community you’ve never been to before—try something new!
- Plant something in your garden or home and watch it grow.
- Watch a movie from a genre you’re unfamiliar with.
- Read fiction if you’re used to non-fiction; read non-fiction if you’re used to fiction.
- Mail a letter to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while.
- Have a spontaneous solo dance party.
- Listen to an album you haven’t heard before from start to finish.
- Rearrange the furniture in a room in your home or office.
- Pick up garbage near your home or in a local park.
Need more ideas? Try our limited edition Isolation Ideas Pack, which is filled with quick and easy ways to learn something new and lean into your creative side.
Idea Generation Workshop
New ideas are simply connections you make, which is a skill you can continue to improve upon. Work at completing idea generation exercises on a regular basis, continue to put yourself out there, try new things, and seek a continuous learning mindset to hone your skills.
Overlap’s Creative Problem Solving School has a course that covers tools for ideation and prototyping new solutions. Our Building Innovative Ideas (202) course was designed to deepen your understanding of how to come to better solutions through ideation, structured collaboration, and prototyping.
Have a question about idea generation or one of our courses? Reach out to our team at any time.