By Andrew Eklund
When asked to solve a problem or fill a new client need, often it seems easier to be creative in a group meeting, where there are other people to help create ideas. But when we get back to our desks—the only companion being our reflection in the computer monitor—we quickly feel apprehensive about our ability to be creative by ourselves. Fear no more, here are solo exercises that will help a flow of new ideas emerge.
This article is reprinted and adapted with permission from the author's Creative@Work series (Issue 13, Sept. 2006), which is published on the Burson-Marsteller Web site.
When we have to call upon our creativity skills in the workplace, nine times out of ten we have to be creative on our own for three basic reasons: We don't have time to put together a proper brainstorm, our firm or department may be too small to literally get others to join in a group setting, or we simply don't feel we're surrounded by "creative people" even if the first two requirements exist.
But each of us has the ability to be creative regardless of the number of people around us. In fact, I could argue that your creativity might actually increase because you don't have to worry about certain negative aspects of a typical brainstorm session, like cynicism, resistance to innovation or the "group think" that can often be found in larger firms.
The following outlines 10 ways that I use to boost my creativity when I have to work alone. Each follows a standard principle. To jump-start your creative thinking, you need to stimulate your brain with some type of mental or visual imagery (a picture, a word, an object or an existing or potential idea). You then combine or merge your problem or need with the concepts that arise from the imagery to create a wholly new idea. The 10 tricks here are variations on that basic theme, but you can also create your own variations to suit your personality, style and work environment.
As always, you must first have your goal, need or problem properly articulated. What are you trying to solve? What's preventing you from being successful? Once you've defined that, start with any of the following tips. You don't have to go in order. Write down all of your ideas on a blank piece of paper, or perhaps draw your ideas to inspire your creativity even further. And don't limit yourself to a few minutes of time. In fact, it's often more successful if you brainstorm for 10 to 15 minutes, put it aside and go to work on another project, then return for another stretch of 10 to 15 minutes of brainstorming later on. You rarely have to solve your problem right now. In fact, you can keep this up for several days, returning whenever you need a mental break.
Trick 1: Select a Descriptive Word, Such as a Noun
A good descriptive noun is ideal because it conjures up many different associations that you can use to brainstorm ideas. Use a noun that has nothing to do with either your problem or need, or with the particular industry, category or service. Simply pick up a dictionary, open it to any page, and select a noun. When you combine this word with your problem or need, what idea does the merger of the two suggest? Move beyond the first few ideas—stretch your imagination. If one word doesn't work, pick another, then another. Don't just look for another word on that page. Go to another letter in your dictionary. Or try an online tool like www.dictionary.com or www.thesaurus.com.
Trick 2: Or, Try a Verb
Verbs work differently in creative thinking because—by their very nature—they suggest action, specifically a change, more so than a noun. Here, pick any specific attribute of the service or product that you believe is central to the problem. Then, select any action verb (either in a dictionary or online) and apply it to the problem. Combining the problem with an action verb will create a new idea or concept. Your first "merge" might be odd, but keep trying. Select another verb, then another. Something will eventually emerge. I typically go through 40 to 45 verbs in one sitting before I look back at no more than eight to ten good ideas.
Trick 3: Get a Magazine Filled with Pictures
The cliché says a picture's worth 1,000 words. For many people, a visual image is far more conducive to stimulating an idea than a noun or verb is. The easiest method here is to select any magazine that is filled with large-scale photographs. Magazines unrelated to either your subject or your category will work best. You want to stimulate your mind with new images, so you're more likely to be more creative if you pass over your regular reading pile. Broadband types can adapt this tip by using the online image banks at Google or Yahoo, or by going to some of the better online photography sites. Type any word into the site's search line (by using tricks 1 and 2), and off you go.
Trick 4: Get Away From Your Problem by Getting Away From Your Desk
One of the very best ways to invigorate your creativity is simply to get up from your desk and move. Doesn't it make sense that your brain works better when you're active, when you actually get up and go outside of your office—preferably outside in general? So why not get out in the fresh air to let your imagination go? In fact, do yourself a bigger favor and go for a walk. Now you have visual stimulation everywhere you look. If you have the inclination, walk somewhere that you'll have even more stimulation, like a museum or shopping center. 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 reenergized.
Try a Visual Stimulator
You can find thousands of pictures on the Internet to stimulate thousands of ideas. Try one of these online photo services:
Trick 5: Talk to Someone Unrelated to the Problem
Did you know that the more knowledgeable and involved you are in any situation or topic, the less likely you'll be able to be creative? It's possible to get too much information. You learn so much that it begins to restrict your thinking. So it's often helpful to describe your problem or need to someone who has an open mind. Believe it or not, sometimes it's helpful to explain your problem to a child. 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. What's the worst that will happen? You may not get a new idea, but often you'll find that you've rethought your problem by trying to explain it to someone wide-eyed and without prejudice. And isn't that part of solving the problem, too?
Trick 6: Talk to Someone Who Will Use the Idea
Here's an example. One of my favorite creative fiascos was the time we brainstormed ideas to launch a new diabetes drug. I came up with these "terrific" ideas, and when I presented them to my client, she asked: "Did you discuss any of the ideas with someone who suffers from diabetes?" I was an idiot! It never dawned on me to actually involve people who suffer from diabetes. When I casually asked my friends if they had diabetes, one woman said she'd be delighted to help me brainstorm. More so, I realized that my "great" ideas were actually horrible ones, but with gracious good humor, my friend helped me improve each idea into a better one. I also found that it was easier to sell the ideas to my client because now I was able to say I was 100 percent confident that the target audience would actually participate and engage in these ideas.
Trick 7: Turn to a Celebrity for Help
Part of the fun of brainstorming is to imagine the target audience or end-user as a real, historical or fictional celebrity. When I was brainstorming ideas to position a mid-priced car, I thought of Homer Simpson as the stereotype of our audience. What would I do to get Homer to buy our car? When we were brainstorming a new line of cosmetics, I thought of Kylie Minogue. 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 give you ample elements to brainstorm.
Trick 8: Find a Metaphor for the Problem
Metaphors (phrases or figures of speech that compare two things) are very helpful in creativity because they suggest how one problem may be like another existing problem. Therefore, the new problem may be a possible solution to the original one. Think of four or five different metaphors or analogies that mirror or mimic the original problem or need. Write them on a page. 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 an entirely different occupation. For example, 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? In another twist, I changed the chemist to a different occupation: What early-warning devices does an airline pilot use? A firefighter? A police officer? A beautician?
Expand the way you think about a problem.
Several Web sites let you find metaphors or analogies. Check out these:
Trick 9: Borrow and Steal
This might seem like a form of cheating, or you can consider it a form of flattery. Over the years, whenever I saw an idea that I thought was creative, unusual, eye-catching or interesting for some unknown reason at the time, I ripped it out of the newspaper or magazine, printed it from the Internet, or simply jotted it down on a piece of scrap paper. Each and every one of those ideas went into an idea folder that I keep handy at my desk. You can only imagine how many idea clippings I now have at my desks at work and home. Whenever I need a bit of creative stimulation, I 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 wholesale to another project. But applying an idea from an unrelated industry or situation to your current environment often creates a wholly new concept … or at the very least, a new twist on an old—and successful—idea.
Trick 10: Put It Aside—Or Even Better, Sleep on It
Sometimes we simply need to let our brains rest by putting the idea away for the night, or simply moving on to another project for a good amount of time. The good news is that you may stop and work on another project, but 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 while 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 at the ready—by your nightstand, in your briefcase, near the television. Actually, 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.
How Many Brains Does It Take to Have a Lightbulb?
One final point: You've probably realized by now that all of these tips are as useful for group brainstorm activities as they are for individual ideation. But don't limit yourself in the future to relying on others to generate ideas. In fact, new research from the University of Amsterdam suggests that solo creativity may actually produce better results than a group brainstorm: People focus more when working alone, they feel they have fewer distractions from other people, and 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, when really, just one plain ol' brain is all any of us need to be creative.