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When you’ve been working in an organisation for some time, it’s often hard to think beyond the politics, assumptions and perceived restrictions of the workplace. These mental barriers limit your ideas. And small ideas won’t make a big impact on your business.

Creative thinking should be about exploring new territories rather than picking over familiar ground. So if you want to break out of these limitations and come up with some new ideas, here are five tried and tested methods to generate ideas you wouldn’t normally have.

Creative thinking should be about exploring new territories

Pretend you’re someone else

If you’re not sure you’ve got the abilities to solve the problem in front of you, pretend you’re someone else. If there’s another business you believe would approach it in an interesting way, pretend you work for them and try to come up with the kind of ideas you imagine they’d produce. Likewise, if there’s an individual you admire, imagine how they would solve the problem.

Even better, think outside your industry. And even beyond reality. What would Richard Branson do? Or Elon Musk? Or MacGyver?

It seems that imagining what someone else would do forces us to bypass the filters and limitations we put on our own thinking. So put your head on someone else’s shoulders and you may just find you’ve got what it takes to come up with a brilliant idea after all.

Play with time

The timescale we try to solve a problem within influences the kind of solution we come up with. Think about how you’d solve it if you only had a couple of hours. And then if you had a couple of years. The ideas you come up with will be rather different.

Now play with when you’re solving the problem. How would you do it if you were a Neolithic nomad? How about if you were living on a moon-base in 2116?

These time techniques cause us to reframe the problem and force us to think about it in a different way. And that leads to a wider range of ideas.

Give yourself a limitation

Creativity comes into play when we have to find a way around a problem

People usually think that creativity thrives in a wide open landscape without any restrictions. But that’s just not the way it works. Creativity comes into play when we have to find a way around a problem. Like not enough time, budget or resources. But if these things aren’t enough of a problem, you can always create your own. It doesn’t matter what they are. You could just pretend that you’ve get less time or budget. But it’s better if you make your restrictions a bit more fun.

Try something like making sure all your ideas start with the letter ‘v’. Or your ideas have to come from a Justin Bieber lyric. Or you need to describe your ideas like a film poster. Having a restriction to work with forces you off the beaten path and making it fun gives you the motivation to come up with more ideas.

Put yourself in a different environment

The environment we’re in influences the way we respond. And the workplace can be a dreadfully limiting place. It usually comes with politics, expectations, perceived restrictions and a general air of conservatism. It forces people into corporate-think.

Getting out of the office and working from a different environment changes the kinds of ideas you’ll come up with. I personally find that coffee shops, pubs, airplanes, trains and jacuzzis are great places to think. They’ve got the right balance of isolation and stimulation. Get yourself away from the big computer on your desk, pick up a notebook and go for a walk.

Do the opposite of the competition

The best creative ideas are very often a reaction against the status quo. They challenge people, shatter assumptions and stand out from all the samey stuff that surrounds them.

So, have a look at the competition and note down all the stuff they’ve got in common. Then start challenging these points one by one. Come up with the opposite. Or do it more dramatically. Or make it a different colour. Or remove it altogether. If you want to stand out, you need to be different. This technique forces you to concentrate on that.

Draw the problem as a cartoon

Offices are all about the writing. The notebooks in the stationery cupboard tend to be lined rather than plain. Desk tidies are more likely to contain biros than fine-liners. So we tend to think the way we generate ideas is by writing things down, making lists, playing with the structure of sentences and nit-picking over the right words.

So take a different approach and think visually. You don’t need to have any drawing skills; stick figures are good enough. Draw a three box cartoon. In the first one, draw the current situation. It will probably be stick figures with speech bubbles. In the last frame draw the ideal situation you’re aiming to achieve. Now all you have to do is work out what goes in the middle box. Come up with as many options as you can. Then you can convert it to words afterwards, if that will help you sell it to your colleagues.

Rewrite the brief

It’s more important to spend time getting the brief right than it is to spend time generating ideas. Don’t assume that just because a brief is nicely formatted in Word that it’s right.

Bad briefs generate bad ideas

Bad briefs generate bad ideas. Your brief should show real insight, clearly state what you’re trying to achieve and not be too executional. And – as the name suggests – it should be brief. Most briefs are pretty bad. So try rewriting it (or just writing it, if you didn’t have one in the first place). It should inspire your thinking and give you something to measure your ideas against at the end. If it doesn’t do that, the most you can hope to achieve is mediocrity.

There are lots more techniques that can help to nudge your brain in different directions. These are just a selection of some of my favourites. If you’ve got some other techniques that work well for you, please share them in the comments below.

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When you’ve been working in an organisation for some time, it’s often hard to think beyond the politics, assumptions and perceived restrictions of the workplace. These mental barriers limit your ideas. And small ideas won’t make a big impact on your business. Creative thinking should be about exploring new territories...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at OpenForIdeas.org
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.