How do you know if your idea is any good?

I regularly ask this question on my ‘How to Have Better Ideas’ workshops (the sequel to ‘How to Have Ideas’). It’s a short question that triggers a wide range of answers. But the one I am looking for is this:

‘A good idea is one that meets the brief’

My aim is marrying up the brief and the idea. I want to emphasise that the two should match. If the idea doesn’t meet the brief, then we have three consequences:

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Asking what if – change the frame for new ideas

Oliver Broadbent climbs through a picture frame to illustrate the concept of asking what if

Asking what if. It’s my go-to technique for stimulating rapid idea generation in groups. In this post, the latest in my series on creative thinking tools for projects, I am sharing another tool for Turning the Kalideascope. In other words, mixing up what we know about a project to help find new ideas. In this post I explain the thinking and then I share a method for facilitating this approach in groups.

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Creative thinking tools for projects: the Eiffel Over guide

montage of 9 photos in which Oliver Broadbent is miming different tools in the Eiffel Over creative tool box.

We need creative thinking tools in our project toolkit to get the most out the opportunities that a new project offers. Projects provide a setting in which people can come together. They provide a focus point for joint attention. They can lead to outcomes that are probably far greater than what we could achieve on our own. In organisations we rightly focus effort on achieving project goals within project constraints – this is project management. But what I think gets neglected is investing in the creative thinking will help define those goals and help reach them in new ways.

The need for creative thinking in setting goals and figuring out how to achieve them is greater than ever before. The climate and ecological emergencies show us that the usual ways of thinking have failed us. We need new thinking. We need creative thinking.

I have spent much of the last five years researching, developing and teaching practical creative thinking tools. People use these tools to help develop their personal and team-level creativity in projects. Based on feedback from workshops with hundreds of engineers and other professionals, I have developed a shortlist of tools and techniques that have the most impact: either in terms of how they help people understand creativity; or how they empower people to be creative with more confidence.

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Curating information for creativity

In this third video in my series on creative thinking, I go into the concept of curating inputs to the creative process. The combination of our brain and body makes for an awesomely powerful creative machine. We can use our bodies to explore and gather a wide range of inputs and then we can use our arms and fingers to manipulate and rearrange elements within our wide field of vision, and yet much of our creative work is blinkered by computer screens, or worse reduced to the width of a phone. In this video I ask viewers to think about how they can arrange their creative inputs to make full use of their creative faculties.

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Build a Kalideascope for creative thinking

In my last post I cited James Webb Young’s definition of an idea as being a new arrangement of existing elements. He goes on to suggest having an idea is like using a kaleidoscope. As I explain in this second video on creative thinking, in my teaching I encourage participants to create their own kaleidoscope dedicate to generating ideas – a Kalideacope.

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What is an idea?

This week I have begun creating a series of videos to share my teaching on how to have ideas. The videos start with what simple question, what is an idea. The definition I use, provided by James Webb Young in his 1965 book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ is pragmatic – it gives us tangible ways to work on improving our creative thinking.

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Does going for a walk improve design?

Taking a walk at Port Eliot Festival

I have just read an interesting piece on the Stanford university website, ‘Stanford study finds walking improves creativity’ (article found via this news piece on the Hazel Hill Wood website). The article describes research that has for the first time investigated the impact of ‘non-aerobic walking on the simultaneous creative generation of new ideas and then compared it against sitting’. I had an intuitive idea that going for a walk improves the quality of my ideas – an example that springs to mind is a catchy tune I wrote on short walk back from the library at college. This research shows that ‘creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.’ What’s more, they stayed high for a short period after sitting back down again.

But the striking thing revealed by this research is that the walking environment doesn’t seem to make a difference. I had assumed that going for a walk outdoors in the woods would be good for my creative thinking, but this study shows that the boost to creative thinking is just as powerful when you take a walk on a treadmill in a featureless indoor room!

This result has obvious implications for how we set ourselves up to do good design, but there is another significant finding reported further down in this news article that also has important implications for design. While walking helps to boost divergent thinking, it is shown in this study to impede ‘more focussed thinking, characteristic of insight’.

So how can we use these findings when think about how we do design work?

In the design training that we have been developing at Think Up, we describe design as a process that starts with identifying a need and establishing a brief, that moves through idea generation and testing, and moves on to choosing the best ideas. These stages are linked by iterative loops which take you back through the process many times.

The obvious place for divergent thinking is in the idea generation phase, but there are others. Right at the start when we are identifying the need, we often need to think around the problem to check if it has been framed properly. We also need to have an open-minded view of the client brief if we are to unpick the unwritten and implied elements of what the client wants. We also need to apply some divergent thinking to enable us to think of all the factors that are going to determine whether our ideas are good ones, rather than simply relying on the usual tests we apply.

There is also an obvious place for convergent thinking: at the part of the design process where we are refining our ideas, and when we are testing them for adequacy against the brief. But there are other places where we need insight: when we are trying to choose the factors in the brief that are going to dominate the design; and when we are trying to make a decision based on hard-to-compare factors.

So there is a place for walking and a place for sitting in design.

Unfortunately, from what I have observed in design offices, we tend to do too little of the latter and not enough of the former. What we could learn from this research is to be more mindful of the type of thinking that is required at any one time and to move or stay still as appropriate.

We should also beware of metaphorical trip hazards. There’s no use in going for a divergent thinking walk if we are distracted by our smart phone en route. Turn it off! And our creative reverie stands a good chance of being extinguished if when we return to our desks we find a set of monthly sales figures demanding our attention. In other words it is probably a good idea to think about that environment you will be returning to at the end of your walk.

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