The lightbulb moment: How to generate great ideas
Innovative thinking can be key to tackling today’s business challenges. Here’s how you can train your brain to deliver creative solutions on demand.
That moment when a brilliant idea strikes out of nowhere can be altogether glorious. Of course, relying on that inspirational lightning bolt is hardly the most efficient or reliable idea generator for busy business owners.
Far better if you could teach your mind to generate new ideas to order. Great news: according to top innovation and creative-thinking experts, you can do exactly that. Here’s their thinking on how anyone can unleash their creativity on demand.
Change your mindset
To kick off a mind-shaping journey, leading consumer psychologist and expert brand strategist Adam Ferrier says it’s time to accept that great ideas aren’t only the preserve of creative types.
The founder of communications agency Thinkerbell says that generating ideas is much simpler than people think, and is adamant that anyone can come up with a new idea that could lead to genuine greatness.
The key is learning how to unlock them.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone is creative, just some are more creative than others,” he says. “Creativity is a skill that can be learned, and ultimately it’s about two things – knowing where you’re trying to head, and creating a new way to get there.”
That ‘new way’, he explains, often involves putting together existing thoughts in new ways. “That’s smashing together previously unrelated concepts or ideas, and coming up with the new.”
Write a brief
Lightbulb moments can be carefully curated – with the help of a written brief, according to Andrew Siwka, brand ideation expert and managing partner of creative agency The Royals.
Siwka suggests that small businesses follow in the footsteps of creative agencies by writing down the problem they’re trying to solve. “A tight brief can be very liberating,” he says.
Ideas can flow freely once you’ve got a brief because this triggers the problem-solving process. It could be a simple case of jotting down the problem – perhaps it’s competitors communicating with customers better, or looking for a new product or service extension.
“I’ve seen a lot of ideas come unstuck because people don’t have a brief, and end up with paralysis,” Siwka says.
Then allow time for ideas to flow, he adds. “Ideas won’t come if you are trying to cram a solution into the last three hours of a Friday afternoon. Get to it early, park it for a day, then come back to it. Let the ideas ruminate.”
Let ideas incubate
Ferrier, too, backs allowing time for rumination – with his own spin on this.
He suggests training your mind to generate new ideas by immersing your brain in tasks that don’t directly relate to the issue. Only then should you start thinking about the problem, letting it sit for a bit, stirring it around, then pouring with gusto.
“The pouring (or the sharing) helps you distil the very best ideas,” he says.
Dr Amantha Imber, founder of innovation consultancy Inventium, also uses the power of the unconscious mind. “Walk around the block. Let things percolate. Sleep on it. Come at it from a fresh perspective,” is her advice.
Imber used this approach recently when trying to land on the title of a book, moving in and out of the task.
“I’ll work on ideas for an hour, then I’ll set my list aside and let the problem incubate for a while,” she says. “Then I’ll come back and forth to the process, regardless of whether I’ve got the luxury of time or not.”
Break your routines
Top communications agencies empower their creatives to work from wherever they feel most inspired. All day, every day, if that’s what it takes.
That’s because following the same daily routines can stymie creative thoughts as your mind starts to work on autopilot. Breaking things up can shock your brain a little, helping new ideas flow.
Try it – and start simply. If you go for a walk, take a different route. If your normal daily routine is demanding and distracting, get up an hour or two earlier when the house is quiet to see if new ideas you might previously have slept through start to flow.
Other easy routine breakers can be as simple as meeting new people or changing your environment. Even small breaks from your routine can enable you to see the world through fresh eyes – and allow you to question your base thinking.
Harness the power of the collective
Group ‘think tanks’ with a full team can be powerful idea generation sessions. Invite every employee, and allow them a voice.
Imber starts this process by asking the group to create a list of assumptions surrounding a problem, before crushing these assumptions by contemplating what would happen if the opposite were true. “We use this shift to get people to generate ideas on their own during a team think tank,” she says.
Another great way to get the creative juices flowing is to email participants beforehand, inviting them to bring ideas to the meeting. “Ask each participant to talk through their idea, one after the other,” Imber suggests. “That way, no-one dominates the conversation.”
Of course, what’s harder to control is when that lightbulb moment finally strikes. It could be when you’re hard at work, or at four in the morning. No matter when or where inspiration hits, you should be ready to write your stroke of genius down – whether it’s using a good-old-fashioned notepad or an app on your phone.
The power of plenty
Finally, embrace the notion of many ideas, whether good or not so good.
Karl T. Ulrich, Professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce at the Wharton School, specialises in innovation, entrepreneurship and product development. One of his catchcries on ideas is to simply have more.
He has pointed to the example of Pixar, which appears to repeatedly produce brilliant films because of its creative genius. Yet, according to Ulrich, that’s not quite the case. “Pixar has plenty of creative genius, but they are quite disciplined on evaluating several hundred story lines for movies before they decide what to do,” he has said. “So for every feature film Pixar releases, they looked at three to four hundred alternatives.”
Likewise, author and marketing expert Seth Godin has written on his blog that “the problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones”.
Godin continued: “Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, ‘None’.”
- Everyone can be creative
- Write a brief for what needs solving
- Let ideas incubate
- Break your usual routines
- Harness the power of a group
- Generate more ideas (and don’t be afraid of bad ones)