Getting Creative: 4 Idea Generating Techniques

In 1926, psychologist Graham Wallas outlined the basic creative process, which has been the overall framework for understanding and fostering creativity for almost a century. The Wallas process can be outlined in four general stages:

  1. Preparation: loading up your mind to be creative
  2. Inspiration/Insight: the process of generating ideas
  3. Incubation: the process of refining and iterating ideas
  4. Verification: the process of validating ideas

Inspiration and Insight are the processes of generating ideas, the way new ideas are created. Ideas, however, rarely occur in a vacuum, even with extensive preparation. Like the formation of crystals or the bubbles in boiling water, ideas need to be anchored to something in order to flourish and grow. Let’s now look at four idea generating techniques that can help give ideas starting points in order to grow.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is the process of making a mental leap to what’s next to something, what has similar patterns of activity or growth. What looks like what you’re trying to accomplish, or what’s nearby conceptually?

For example, one of the ways we train people to think about how to use social media and write effective headlines is to move laterally one step away from the core idea. What happens one step before or after the core headline – what’s its impact? What impact will reading the content have, or what impact will you suffer if you don’t read it? On the other side of the idea, what can you describe about the structure of the idea without giving it away in the headline?

Perspective Shift

When you’re generating ideas and get stuck, perspective shifting can often be helpful. Imagine, for example, that you’re generating ideas for store layouts and you get stuck or bogged down in trivia. A perspective shift is to don your secret shopper disguise and visit your own stores, your competitor’s stores, and unrelated industry stores to see how they do things from the perspective of a customer. If you have access, either via YouTube or physical travel to stores that have their goods in languages you don’t speak, even better. Use that shift in perspective to generate new ideas.

What cues are universal in website design, for example, that let you navigate popular websites in other languages, even if you don’t speak a lick of that language? Take a look at the Asahi Shimbun or Al-Arabiya. Can you figure out how to navigate those sites even without language clues?

Concept Porting

One of the most powerful ways to come up with great ideas is to port them, a term that comes from computer programming. Porting is the act of translating a computer program from one language, like PHP, to another language, like Ruby. Concept porting works along the same idea. Can you take a great idea, a proven, working concept from one area of expertise and translate it effectively to another?

Kesagiri @ Earthen Ring - Game Guide - World of Warcraft

For example, I blog frequently on my personal blog about how World of Warcraft’s concepts apply to marketing. I wrote recently about how marketing has cooldowns just as player abilities have cooldowns. There’s a tremendous amount of crossover if you’re open enough to see how the syntax changes, but the idea doesn’t. Take concepts from things you’re already expert in, things you love outside of work, and bring those ideas into work to see if they apply in a different realm of expertise.

Intentional Conflict

The fourth way to generate ideas is through intentional internal conflict. This is especially applicable to content marketing, which marketers and PR professionals are increasingly responsible for. The idea is simple. Social media and new media give us the ability to only see, hear, and read things we agree with, which is incredibly self-limiting and dangerous. Make a point to subscribe to content that contains strong opposing points of view, personally and professionally. See what “the other side” is saying, and use your reactions as starting points for new ideas.

For example, there’s one person in the digital marketing space whose opinions and methods I vehemently oppose. I dislike nearly everything about this person’s work, but I stay subscribed to their content because my reactions generate energy and passion that I throw into creating content about what I believe to be the “right” way, or at least a better way, of accomplishing certain digital marketing tasks. Find your own “hot button” people to read and follow, and you’ll never want for ideas!

In the next post in this series, we’ll look at a proven idea generation method plus what to do when the ideas run out.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


Keep in Touch

Want fresh perspective on communications trends & strategy? Sign up for the SHIFT/ahead newsletter.

Ready to shift ahead?

Let's talk