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Brainstorming Alone

Being creative at work often means using the people around you to stimulate discussion and creativity. But what happens when you need to be creative and there’s no one else around? How do you stimular your imagination when brainstorming alone?

Here are my top ten suggestions to stimulate your imagination when you’re brainstorming by yourself. All can be adapted to suit your personality, style and work environment. You may even find that your creativity actually increases because you don’t have typical negative aspects of a brainstorm, like group think, negativity or cynicism.

A few general tips to start …
  • Always start by articulating the goal (what are you trying to solve?), and the need or problem (what’s preventing you from being successful?)
  • Write or draw your ideas on blank paper. Using coloured pens or pencils actually helps encourage creativity. Be environmentally friendly and use old pages from your printer. Doodling is typically more imaginative than writing words.
  • Don’t worry about how long you brainstorm. Sometimes it’s best to brainstorm for 10-15 minutes, return to a previous project, then return for another stretch of brainstorming an hour or so later on. You can keep this up for several days, returning whenever you need a mental break. If so, always keep your notes handy and visible to your eye.

Finally – if it’s not yet obvious – all of the ideas below are as useful for group brainstorming (especially ice-breakers) as they are for individual ideation.

1. Select a noun.

A descriptive noun conjures up different aspects which you can use to brainstorm ideas. Open a book to any page. (Dictionaries are perfect for this technique.) Select a noun at random, preferably one with no connection to your topic or problem. Combine this random work with your goal, problem or need. What idea does this ‘merger’ suggest? You’re probably force-fitting two odd things together – and that’s the point. If one word doesn’t work, pick another, then another. Here’s a list of some nouns, verbs, celebrities, occupations, etc. – Brainstorm Technique Word Stimulus – to get you started. Of course, you can always try  or

2. Try an action verb.

Verbs work differently in creative thinking because they suggest action, specifically a change. Pick any specific attribute of your product or service that you believe is central to the problem. Select any action verb from a variety of sources (see above) and force-fit it with the problem. The first few “mergers” might be odd, but don’t despair. I typically go through 40-45 verbs in one sitting before I look back at no more than 8-10 good ideas.

3. Get a magazine filled with pictures.

A visual image is the fastest and often most conducive way to stimulate idea generation. Any picture can be a dynamic catalyst for ideas. There’s two methods:

  • Select a magazine with large-scale photographs, and preferably those outside of your normal reading habits. Flip through the pages, using any image or graphic elements to ‘merge’ with your goal, problem or need to create a new idea.
  • Use online image databases – Google Image as an example – to do the same thing. Type a random word into the search engine (see #1, #2 above).  If you have access to online photo services, you have even more visual fodder to stimulate your creativity.
4. Get moving.

One the best ways to invigorate your creativity is to get up from your desk and move. Your brain works better when you’re active (better blood circulation). Even better, go outside. Your brain continues to work on a problem after you’ve stopped focusing on it, so why not get outside in the fresh air to let your imagination go? Do yourself a bigger favour and go for a walk. Now you have visual stimulation everywhere you look (see #3 above). Give yourself more stimulation by going to a museum or shopping centre. (If you’re like me, you can also get some coffee as further stimulation.) At the very least, getting up and away from your problem will clear your mind so that when you return to your problem you’ll be refreshed and re-energized.

5. Talk to someone unrelated to the problem.

The more knowledgeable and involved you are in any situation or topic, the less likely you’ll be able to be creative. Yes Virginia, you can have too much information. To ‘un-restrict’ your thinking, describe your goal, problem or need to someone with an open mind  – like a colleague in another department or another floor, or best of all, children. Kids don’t bring cynicism or negativity to a problem, and they certainly don’t have the wisdom or experience to allow past history to dictate answers for the future. You may not get a new idea, but you often find that you’ve re-thought your problem by trying to explain it to someone wide-eyed and without prejudice.

6. Talk to someone who will use the idea.

To solve a problem of launching a new diabetes drug, we skipped the brainstorm and went to talk to diabetics. To find ways to win votes for potential legislation, we went directly to constituents. For solo brainstormers, find someone who will use the idea. Engage them by brainstorming ideas. (Sounds like Design Thinking to me!) I also find that it’s easier to sell the idea to my client because I’ve had more confidence that the target audience would participate in these ideas.

7. Ask a celebrity for help.

If No. 6 above talks to real people, No. 7 talks to imaginary people. Create a list of real, historical or fictional celebrities who might be the target audience you’re focused. When brainstorming ideas to position a mid-priced car, I wondered how I might sell the car to Homer Simpson. When brainstorming ideas to launch a new line of cosmetics, I chose Kylie Minogue. To increase patronage of an airline flight lounge for first-class travellers, I thought of Condoleezza Rice. For a premium liquor, James Bond. For sore throat lozenges, Whitney Houston. The additional attributes of any celebrity from any area of popular culture or news gives you ample elements to brainstorm.

8. Find a metaphor to the problem.

Metaphors are phrases or figures of speech which compare two things, such as “All the world’s a stage.” Metaphors are helpful because they suggest how one problem may be like another existing problem, and therefore, the new problem may be a possible solution to the original problem. Write down 4-5 different metaphors or analogies which mirror or mimic the original problem or need. Using one metaphor at a time, think how the ‘new’ solution might be applicable to your current problem.

Another way to use this tip is to transfer the problem you have in your specific industry or category to an entirely different situation or to an entirely different occupation. When I was looking for an early-warning device for a particular company in the chemical industry, I switched the chemical industry for the agricultural industry. What does the agricultural industry use as early-warning devices? Or, I changed the chemist to a different occupation: what early-warning devices does an airline pilot use? A fireman  A policeman? A beautician?

9. Borrow and steal.

This tip is either cheating or a form of flattery. Whenever I see an idea that I thought was creative, unusual, eye-catching or interesting, I put it in an idea folder that I keep at my desk. Whenever I need a bit of creative stimulation, I simply pull out the file and shuffle through it, looking at ‘other’ ideas and wondering if I could borrow and steal one for my current project. Of course you don’t want to simply transfer one idea to another project. But applying an idea from an unrelated industry or situation to your current environment often creates a wholly new idea … or at the very least, a new twist on an old ― and successful! ― idea.

10. Put it aside. Even better, sleep on it.

A friend said this tip sounded like lazy procrastination – and she’s probably right. Sometimes we simply need to let our brain rest by putting the idea away for the night, or simply move on to another project for a good amount of time. As I said before, your brain continues to work on the problem well after you’re moved on to another task. In fact, you never know when your brain will suddenly come up with an unusual or shockingly brilliant idea. That’s what happens when an idea pops into your head when you’re driving, taking a shower, riding public transportation to work. Happily your brain never turns off so make sure you’re prepared. Keep a pen and small pad of paper with you ― by your nightstand, in your briefcase, near the television. Research has often suggested that this type of ‘unconscious brainstorming’ is more productive because your brain is thinking well beyond the scope you allow yourself when sitting at your desk. According to sleep experts, the trick to getting your brain to dream about ideas is to read about the goal, problem or need for up to 30 minutes before you go to bed.

Finally ….

New research from the University of Amsterdam suggests that solo creativity may actually produce better results than a group brainstorm.  Some people focus more when working alone.  They feel they have less distractions from other people  There’s generally a stronger sense of satisfaction when the ideas finally emerge.  Perhaps we need to rethink the adage that “Two heads are better than one,” because in reality, one brain – our own – is all we need to be creative.

Any other suggestions to boost your creativity when brainstorming alone?  Please add your comments below.

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Brainstorming Alone