The oversaturation of info on the web means that coming up with great content ideas is more important than ever. But it’s also starting to seem harder than ever to churn out consistently good ideas. Sure, the easy access to pervasive tools like Google means that you can find whatever you’re looking for right when you’re looking for it. But this convenience has also made us a bit lazy when it comes to our ideation techniques.
Let’s not forget that Google is a search engine run by a single entity. Think of how many people are pulling from the same resource when it comes to thinking of new ideas and solutions – it’s sort of hard to wrap our heads around what that means for creativity today and how this is creating a world that is saturated with sort of generic ideation.
But, fear not. The following 10 ideation techniques require only the brains and imagination and creativity of you and your team –they will ensure that your ideas are unique, naturally generated, and completely derived from the personality, spirit, knowledge, and experience of the company.
- Challenge existing assumptions
- Try linking unrelated concepts
- Come up with a name first – then write its story
- Rip and Rap
- Translation of Sensory Experiences
- Ego Alter
- Problem Framing
- Product Box
- Collaborative Sketching
- Reverse Thinking
Assumptions can be total anathema to innovation. I hate onions. But when I was a kid I would order cheeseburgers that came with onions and then spend the first few minutes of my meal picking them off and then cringing when I inevitably got a bite with a stray onion tucked into it. Why didn’t I just think to order the burger without onions? Because I was a kid and just assumed that cheeseburgers came with onions.
As an adult, I realized that we erroneously apply this same principle almost every day. There is nothing more frustrating than questioning the way something is done and being met with the answer “Because it’s always been done this way.”
So often we get stuck because we neglect to pause, look at the process we have, and decide to improve it.
Directly challenging your assumptions is a powerful way to break old habits, reexamine existing policies and employ new ideation techniques according to Creativity expert Michael Michalko, author of Thinkertoys (a Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques). Michalko explains that one great way to come up with new ideas is to “reverse the assumptions you make to provoke unconventional thinking patterns.”
So how do you start reversing your assumptions about your business, when you might not even know what your assumptions are? This is where you break out the pen and paper and do an old school brainstorming session. This can be a powerful technique for producing ideas.
Michalko recommends that you start this ideation process by coming up with a long list of assumptions you have about your business, its services, products, customers, etc. For example, if you run a house cleaning company, you could make a list that looks like the following (but longer – don’t skimp on the work here, guys).
Once you’ve made the list of assumptions about your company, look at each assumption and then make a list of the direct reversal of that assumption. So, if you were to do this for a cleaning company, the assumption reversal list would look like:
HOUSE CLEANING COMPANIES ASSUMPTIONS
HOUSE CLEANING COMPANIES ASSUMPTION REVERSALS
|House cleaning companies charge money to clean.||House cleaning companies do not charge money to clean.
|House cleaning companies have a menu of cleaning services customers can choose from.
|House cleaning companies have no menu of cleaning services for customers to choose from.
|House cleaning companies provide cleaners to clean homes.
|House cleaning companies do not provide cleaners to clean homes|
Once you’ve made a list of the reversals, you can then look at each reversal and come up with a way (or a couple of ways) of making each reversal real. (e.g. how could house cleaning companies clean without charging money?) This list could look something like this:
- A house cleaning company that doesn’t charge money to clean.
- HOW TO MAKE THIS REAL: A company charges by the amount of time cleaners are in a home – not by the specific cleaning services rendered. OR a company charges homeowners for the cost of all the cleaning products, rags, sprays, etc., and not a charge for the actual labor of cleaning.
- A house cleaning service with no service menu.
- HOW TO MAKE THIS REAL: A cleaning company will provide any cleaning service a customer wants – the customer must simply specify their exact cleaning needs and the company will custom tailor their services to fit those individual needs.
- A house cleaning service that doesn’t provide cleaners.
- HOW TO MAKE THIS REAL: a cleaning company that can provide cleaning supplies and tools and a detailed step-by-step guide for different cleaning processes in a home. Customers can pay for the guides and tools and complete the cleaning themselves.
Once you’re done coming up with ways to make the reversals real, look at your list and see which one seems the most feasible. Then tackle that idea and try to make it a realistic business plan.
For example, if you’re going to start a DIY cleaning company that provides instructions and cleaning supplies for homeowners, what cleaning services would you explain? How would you get tools and supplies to customers? How much would you charge them for your products and guides? When you’re done with the entire ideation process, you might not have come up with a business you actually want to start – but you may be able to look at something you currently do and see how you could do it differently, or you may have a great idea for how to advertise, inform about or promote a new service.
Assumptions are a great way to get stuck in a rut – and challenging assumptions is a great way to get out of one.
Try going big with your ideation techniques, and make a list of at least 20 or 30 assumptions about your company – using this process may just help you come up with a brilliant strategy that leads your marketing strategy in a whole new direction.
Creativity blocks can happen when you least expect them, and sometimes it can seem daunting trying to get out of a creative rut and do some really productive ideation – especially when the pressure’s on to create great content and innovate.
Applied creativity and innovation expert Bryan Mattimore (co-founder of Growth Engine Co. ) asserts that one of the best ideation techniques when you’re stuck in the idea development process is to force yourself to link concepts that are unrelated.
How do you do that? Use what Mattimore calls the “AND What?” process – it’s one of the best idea generation methods we’ve seen. Start by taking the subject of your business, and then making a LONG list of random things linked to that subject by the word “AND.” For fun, let’s imagine that we run a company that sells wine. In order to jumpstart your creative outlook, you might make a list that start something like this:
- Wine and movies
- Wine and vacations
- Wine and philanthropy
Once you’ve made your list, then, come up with a way that you could potentially link the two items in each pair together. Your next step may look something like the following:
|1. Wine and movies||Create a partnership with local movie theaters that sell food and wine in the theater. Have them feature one of your wines that pairs well a movie they’re showing: for example, people seeing a movie like The Revenant can order a deep, dark Merlot, or those watching a bright animated movie like Inside Out can enjoy a light, grassy Sauvignon Blanc.|
|2. Wine and vacations||Start an online ordering/shipping service where people can have their favorite wines shipped to their hotel and waiting at the front desk upon their arrival. The point is that it might sound crazy – but it this is the process that gets you to the great ideas…and there will be some not so great ones along the way.|
|3. Wine and philanthropy||Contact a local charitable organization that you want to help out, and ask if you can create a philanthropic partnership. Then, offer to donate a portion of proceeds for all of the sales of a certain wine (you can allow the organization to choose which one) back to the organization, in exchange for their promoting you/the partnership.|
Mattimore asserts that the effectiveness of the “AND what?” ideation method as a technique for producing ideas for is twofold. First, forcing yourself to come up with a LONG list of ideas is good psychologically; it relieves the pressure on each idea, allowing you to stop worrying about coming up with the “’correct’ or the single best answer.” It also forces you to turn away from what you or your company is doing, and take in the outside world for inspiration. According to Mattimore, “Creative ruts can come from too much self-involvement or inward focus.”
Of course, as with any ideation method, some of the ideas you come up with using this “AND what?” idea generation process might be outlandish — and others might be completely infeasible. But forcing yourself to get a little ridiculous and find links between seemingly disparate topics will get your creative wheels turning and put a stop to your navel gazing – which may just end up being the thing that gets you out of your rut.
Often, when trying out ideation techniques, companies try to come up with the meat of a new idea first – then give their new solution a name once it’s finished.
However, Helmut Schlicksupp, a creative expert for Innovation company Battelle suggested in the 1970s that one of the most successful ideation techniques might be to do the exact opposite: to generate the right name first, then to come up with idea that fits that name.
His ideation method, which he named “semantic intuition” might sound backwards and complicated — but in reality, it’s actually a simple and effective process. In fact, the ideation method is so useful that it’s been the source of some of our greatest contemporary popular culture. Rock star Sting admitted during an interview on Larry King Live that he often comes up with the titles of his songs first – then writes the lyrics. Another fun factoid – the creator of The Princess Bride actually had his 7- and 4- year old daughters brainstorm the title of the movie, before he devised what it would actually be about.
So, coming up with an awesome title and then having a great idea follow sounds great! But also like magic. After all, how would one go about an idea process of coming up with a name that might actually lead to something valuable and relevant – when you don’t yet have an inkling of what that thing might be?
There’s actually a pretty straightforward process to using semantic intuition, and it goes as follows:
The idea process goes something like this: First, write a list of three general categories that have to do with your company or the challenge it’s facing. For example, if you were a content writing company that wanted to come up with a new blog idea, your list might look something like this:
- Features of content writing companies
- Things that content writing companies actually do in their day-to-day operations
- Benefits of hiring a content writing company
Then, underneath each category title, list words or phrases that fit into every category. Think of as many as you can. For example, this ideation phase might look something like this (but longer):
- Features of content writing companies.
- Professionally-trained writers
- Staff with SEO know-how
- Onstaff editors
- High-tech writing platforms
- Things that content writing companies actually do in their day-to-day operations.
- Write blogs
- Optimize SEO
- Handle customer service
- Compose product descriptions
- Benefits of hiring a content writing company
- Boosted SEO score
- More time for employees to focus on actual business operations
- Better written content online
- Fewer on-staff employees for companies (outsourced writers)
Once you have your lists, take one item from each category and make individual 3-point lists:
- Professionally-trained writers, Write Blogs, Boosted SEO score
- Staff with SEO know-how, optimize SEO, more time for employees to focus on business operations
- On-staff editors, handle customer service, better written content online
- High-tech writing platforms, composer product descriptions, fewer on-staff employees for companies
Then, once you have your lists (you can mix and match items), sit down, and move to the next ideation phase – trying to come up with a story or idea that links all three items on the list. For example:
- Professionally-trained writers, Write Blogs, Boosted SEO score: Reasons Using Professionally-trained Writers to Write Your Blogs Can Boost SEO
- Staff with SEO know-how, optimize SEO, more time for employees to focus on business operations: Important Ways SEO Experts Can Save You Time and Get You Noticed
- On-staff editors, handle customer service, better written content online: How to Publish Better Content and Be Happier While You Do It
- High-tech writing platforms, compose product descriptions, fewer on-staff employees for companies: How Content Companies Can Make The Most Of New Tech Tools
At first glance, the words on some of your lists might seem perfectly linked – and others might not seem to connect at all. However, by forcing yourself to come up with a creative relationship between all of the items, you’ll learn to reframe certain things your company does, and think about certain aspects of your business in ways you’ve never thought of before. That’s one of the best benefits of using ideation techniques.
Sometimes, when you’re trying to think of new ideas, it’s easy too stuck in your own head – turning over the same thoughts over and over again. One great cure for this maddening pattern is abandoning words and thoughts completely – and turning to images.
Purely visual ideation techniques are a good way to help people who may not think of themselves as expressly “creative” to access a different part of their brains than they normally use. According to design and creativity experts at the Ohio State University, “The visual nature liberates people’s creativity from the boundaries of what they can state in words.”
A visual ideation technique that Mattimore loves to use is called “Rip and Rap.” This technique is markedly similar to the collaging you might have done in elementary school – and it is also remarkably effective.
To use the Rip and Rap method, you can do the following.
- Gather a large group of people who are working to come up with a new idea into teams of three.
- Give each team scissors, glue, a posterboard, and stacks of magazines of all kinds – the content doesn’t have to be related to your company, just make sure the magazines are filled with images.
- Next, explicitly state the topic they should be thinking about (e.g. if you’re trying to name a new bar of soap you’ve come up with, the topic would be your soap.)
- Allow teams 30 minutes to flip through the magazines and find images they think are related to the topic. Then, they should cut out and paste those images together to form a collage.
- When the half hour is over, allow each group to present their collage.
- Ask participants to take notes on ideas they come up with based on other peoples’ collages or other peoples’ responses to their collage.
- Share notes – there’s a good chance that many people in the group will have new insight to the challenge (and many may have similar insights.)
Your vision isn’t the only sense that can help spur creation. In fact, psychology experts believe that things we hear, smell, touch, taste and see affect our creative thoughts nearly automatically. If you’re trying to come up with a visual idea (say, a logo for a company or design for a new product), it can help to get all of your senses involved in the ideation process. For this, you can take advantage of the ideation technique: translation of sensory experiences. Here’s how you do it:
- Step 1: Make a list of non-visual (aural, textural, olfactory, etc.) sensory elements related to the subject around which you’re creating content. (For example, if you’re creating content for a laundry detergent company, you may list elements like: the sound of the washing machine running, the smell of fresh linens, and the feel of soapy water.)
- Step 2: If possible, create those sensory experiences for yourself (listen to a washing machine, smell some clothes that were just washed, dip your hands into sudsy water.)
- Step 3: Take a pen and paper and try to draw a visual representation of how those sensory experiences felt to you.
- Step 4: Use these individual sensory sketches to get at a commonly understood, but rarely visualized, element of your main topic.
Everyone had their favorite superhero growing up. When I was young and didn’t want to do a chore, my mom would motivate me by saying, “Imagine what Batman would do if he had to take out the trash right now!” (That would get me to the trash can faster than you can say “to the Bat Mobile!”)
Even though you may be grown up now, and less admiring of superheros (or maybe not) you can still motivate your idea generation process by using a similar technique.
The ego alter ideation technique spurs you to come up with new ideas by getting you to step into the metaphorical “skin” of some very famous characters.
- To start the process, break your large group up into several teams of 3 people.
- Then, assign each group a very famous, well-known, successful figure.
- g. Steve Jobs, Oprah, Barack Obama, Albert Einstein, Taylor Swift, etc.)
- State clearly the goal of the ideation session or the problem you’re trying to solve.
- For example: you’re trying to come up with a blog post idea that’s going to go viral.
- Each group now has 30 minutes to pretend, as their assigned figure, that they’ve already solved the problem (e.g. they’ve come up with a blog idea that’s hit big) – then explain how they, as the famous figure, succeeded.
- For example: the group assigned Taylor Swift may say that they unabashedly decided to write a post about a previous relationship that went awry and why it did.
- At the end of the 30 minutes, each group shares how they believe their figure would have succeeded, and how that can be related to their company
- The Taylor Swift group may say that instead of breakup songs or blogs, they should write an honest, tell-all blog about a failed experience or undertaking at the company, and honestly explain why it failed.
Have you ever heard that famous quote “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters?” While it may be cliché, and printed on the side of inspirational coffee mugs and magnets, it can also be a useful thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to generate new ideas.g
If your company is facing a problem, it can help to step back and look at that problem a different way – to reframe it.
One hugely powerful ideation method is called problem framing.
To use problem framing, directly state the problem you’re facing, then make a list of 20 questions about the problem and how to solve it – starting with the most basic questions. For example, if there aren’t enough desks for all the interns at your company, but you don’t have enough money to buy more desks, your first questions may look something like the following
- Where can I get more money to buy more desks?
- Can we find a way to fit more interns at the desks we have?
Then, probe into the problem and expand the scope of your questions a little further, looking at a different aspect of the challenge you’re facing:
- How can we create useful tasks for the interns that don’t require sitting at desks?
- Can we change the interns’ work schedules so they’re not all here at once?
The second round of questioning could help lead to new, creative ideas, like getting interns to do more hands-on projects, and creating new rotating schedules so everyone has a chance to do their best work.
Finally, ask more questions, probing even deeper:
Can we give our employees the option of working in spaces they want, other than desks, creating an open and flexible office environment?
This question can lead to a complete overhaul of the company culture – creating an open office plan, ensuring that interns have somewhere to work comfortably, and creating an improvement overall for the entire company.
Games may seem like the stuff of playgrounds – not of the boardroom. But, in reality, ideation games can be some of the most effective ideation techniques, which actually lead to innovation. When you get people having fun and taking themselves less seriously, they may let their guards down and be more willing to share ideas without fear of judgment, or they may just get so swept up in the game that they forget they’re at work.
One popular ideation game is called Product Box. Here’s how you can play:
- Divide employees into small teams and give each team a cereal box wrapped in white butcher paper.
- Give the teams a basic set of information that they will have to transmit.
- Give the teams art supplies and instruct them to decorate the box in order to sell a product or service that their company currently sells (or is intending to sell).
- Direct one member of each team to deliver a marketing pitch selling the box.
- Conduct a vote and declare a winner.
The benefits of Product Box as an ideation method are many. You can:
- Develop new marketing ideas
- Give higher-ups a chance to see how well their employees understand a product
- Determine which features of a product work, and which could be cut completely
- And more.
Another great way to get at a new visual idea? Sketching. Doodling on a piece of paper has always been a pretty good ideation technique, but sketching with a group of people can combine visual ideas into a concept that’s totally new. Here’s how collaborative sketching works.
- Step 1: Break your large group up into smaller groups of 3-4 people.
- Step 2: Distribute pieces of paper, then have a member of each group sketch a central image related to your concept.
- Step 3: Have that person give the sketch to another member of the team. Then, the next member will sketch another related visual element.
- Step 3: Teams should repeat the above steps, until each person has added a component to the drawing. You can also repeat this multiple times.
- Step 4: After the sketching is over, teams should look at the complete image they created. While it might not be the final concept you want to use for your visual content, it may reveal linked visual elements that each person might not have been able to come up with on their own.
There’s something to be said about flipping an issue on its head and looking at it from a completely different angle. In a similar vein to the first ideation technique we mentioned (reversing assumptions), you can also reverse the challenge you’re facing in order to come up with new ideas for solutions.
When you use the reverse thinking ideation technique to generate ideas, you should first isolate the challenge or question you’re tying to answer. For example, maybe your challenge is that you want to double your e-mail list. Here’s how you can implement reverse thinking:
- State your challenge (e.g. How can I double my e-mail list?)
- Reverse that challenge (e.g. How can I make sure I get absolutely no more leads?)
- Then, take your reversed thought, and answer it: (e.g. I can stop doing inbound marketing, I can put up offensive material on my blog, I can remove all opt-in or sign-up forms, I can spam peoples’ inboxes so they unsubscribe from the list.)
- Examine the list you made addressing your reversed challenge, and see if it can inspire you to come up with new ways to tackle the challenge. (e.g. maybe you can ramp up your content marketing efforts, pay close attention to crafting valuable content on your blog, put more easy-to-find, easy-to-fill out opt-in forms, and better tailor e-mails for timing and content to make sure current e-mail contacts stay happy.)
In the end, you don’t have to use the three part “titles” you come up with — but this method of generating ideas may serve as a forward leap in innovation.
Ideation is crucial no matter whether you are trying to start a new company or come up with better ways of marketing your well-established brand. Try out the above ideation techniques to help you get brainstorming. They may just propel your ideation game to the next level.