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So now that you're done laughing at those foolish people who were wrong about new concepts, take a look at the following symbol and say what you see:

black dot

What do you see, a black dot? Good.

What else do you see? How about a very large period? What else can you think of? Here's some other things you might see:

  • Overhead view of a cup of coffee (no milk, two sugars)
  • A very dirty basketball (probably from playing on blacktop)
  • An open sewer cover (that doesn't smell as bad as the real thing)
  • A tire that hasn't had the hole cut out of it yet (try putting that on your car)
  • A train in a tunnel that forgot to turn on its headlight (look out!)
  • A bad thing to find in the bottom of a boat (where's my lifejacket?!)
  • That bullet thing over there (oh yeah, and also a bullet hole in your computer screen)
  • That secret place in the washing machine where one sock will hide, never to be found again (the only exception to the scientific laws of conservation)

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Did you notice what just happened? Instead of accepting the first answer that came out, we went beyond it to come up with more ideas. This is the first principle of our process for being creative, be open to and create lots of ideas.

How to Create a Lot of Ideas

If you want to impress your friends, you can call this "divergent thinking". It's based on the way that your mind naturally works when you're being creative, and it is something that you can do intentionally when you need to create more options or ideas for a given situation.

Alex Osborn (the advertising guy, remember?) created the concept of brainstorming which is a way for a group come up with many, many ideas in a short period of time, and the same guidelines apply for working by yourself to come up with many new ideas. In his book, Applied Imagination, Osborn provides us with four guidelines for doing this:

  1. Defer judgment — no criticism right now. Remember the people who said that airplanes were impossible? Don't be one of them. Yes, at some point it is important to judge an idea, but don't do it while you're trying to generate ideas.

  2. Strive for quantity — Osborn said that, "quantity breeds quality," or the more ideas you come up with, the more likely it is that one or more of them will be a great idea.

  3. Seek unusual or wild ideas — Osborn said, "it is easier to tame down than to think up." In other words, we can worry about how to make it work later, so look for as many seemingly "crazy" ideas as you can — the wilder the better.

  4. Combine and build on ideas — "piggyback" or "hitch-hike" one idea to another to create a new idea. An example of this is the combination of a combining an engine with a horse carriage to create the concept of the horseless carriage, or what we now call an "automobile." Sound familiar?

By using these principles when we look for new ideas or options, you give yourself permission to come up with ideas you might not otherwise pay any attention to, but that actually make sense when you think about them, tame them down, or add something else to them.

Give it a try on a real problem and see if you can't come up with many ideas. Before you do though, tell yourself how many ideas you want to come up with, maybe 30 ideas if your problem is well defined or 100 ideas if you want some really bizarre ideas, and then don't stop until you come up with that number. Alex Osborn pointed out the value of creating many ideas by assigning a value of one cent to the first idea. If the next idea is worth twice the previous idea, (for example the second idea is worth two cents, the third idea is worth four cents, and so on), by the time you get to the 30th idea it is worth $5,368,704. The moral here is to stretch for one more idea, because it may be worth a lot!

Of course this isn't the only way to find ideas or options to solve problems or challenges, merely one way that has been proven to work. When you're working on trying to create ideas or options to help you solve a problem, feel free to add some other tricks, tools or techniques that you may have used in the past to help you.

The only thing that you can't change in this process is the concept of not giving up. When we're faced with a challenge or a particular problem, it's easy to say, "I can't do it," or "I don't know how to solve it," or it's impossible." Nothing is impossible, with the possible exception of skiing through a revolving door. So give yourself the chance to look for ideas before you judge them. You'll find that your ability to create solutions may surprise you. •

Next: The Value of Making Mistakes

©2004 Jonathan Vehar. All rights reserved.