Better than Brainstorming – Part 1: 4 Ways to Ideate

brainstorming featurePhoto by Federica Giusti via Unsplash

For many of us, the most intimidating part of the innovation process is coming up with ideas. That uneasy feeling is the Innovation Myth at work. We’re all familiar with Hollywood depictions of geniuses having a bolt of insight that leads them to create the next big thing. But where did that bolt come from? Divine inspiration? Good genes? When it’s our turn to come up with great ideas, where are they supposed to come from?

Not to worry, you don’t need to be the next Einstein or some sort of prophet to get a new idea. Despite Hollywood depictions, ideas don’t just happen out of the blue. Even the famous eureka moment that started it all didn’t really come out of nowhere. The ancient Greek king, Hiero II, commissioned a new crown for himself, but when it was completed, he suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him by replacing some of the gold with silver. Unfortunately, he had no way to prove this, so he asked Archimedes for help. Archimedes mulled over this problem for quite a while until one evening, he settled into his tub for a soak. That’s when he noticed the water level rise. He realized that he could measure the volume of the crown by placing it in water. Once he knew the volume, he used the weight of the crown to determine if it was as dense as pure gold. (It wasn’t.) Archimedes didn’t come up with this innovation out of thin air. He did it by connecting two things that had never been connected before. And this is where all new ideas come from: combining concepts from things that already exist.

So rather than rely on conventional brainstorming, the next time you or your team need to come up with a bold new idea, try one of these methods, designed specifically to help your brain make new connections.

Ideation Techniques

analogous rexPhoto by Sticker Mule via Unsplash

Analogous Rex

This is a technique of analogies and metaphors. In it, you say your innovation problem is like a [ blank ] . And that blank could be anything, but it generally falls into two categories: random and context. Random is exactly what it sounds like, something totally unrelated to your innovation problem. Your problem could be like auto racing, or maybe it’s like ping pong, or maybe a volcano. Just pick something at random like, say, sunflowers, to the challenges you’re facing, like assigning nurses to patients in a hospital. Now, at first, you might think that sunflowers have absolutely nothing to do with nursing assignments, but if you think about it for awhile, you can come up with some interesting ideas. For instance, sunflowers are always facing the sun. They watch it; they pay attention to it. Maybe there’s a way to make it easier for all the nurses to watch the patients that need the most attention. Context analogies fill in the blank by going with related to your problem. Maybe it’s similar to another problem you’ve solved before. Or maybe it’s sort of like what a competitor has done. Whether your analogy is random or based on context, the key is what comes next. Once you have your analogy, you need to defend it. If you have a partner, you can ask them to play devil’s advocate to question your analogy and force you to justify how it makes sense.


mix masterPhoto by Kevin Horstmann via Unsplash

Mix Master

This is a fun one. New ideas come from combining two separate, and often highly dissimilar, concepts. In Mix Master, you do exactly this to generate new ideas. You actually take two unrelated ideas, mash them up, and then see how the new combination could help with your problem. So in this version, you would combine sunflowers and auto racing and then see what ideas that sparks for nursing assignments. So you might be wondering where you’re supposed to get the random concepts like sunflowers and auto racing. Well, there are actually a handful of dedicated apps for that (seriously, just search for “Idea Generator” in your favorite app store and see how many apps come up). In addition, going to random Wikipedia pages is a great way to come up with disparate topics. Board games with topic cards like Trivial Pursuit or Taboo are also fun, fast ways to generate lots of topics. Finally, you can ask your team to throw out a bunch of random topics before you begin your ideating. This can be a fun warm up exercise, and what’s more, your brain might pull a fast one and throw out a concept that it sees a hidden connection between it and the problem you’re trying to overcome.


chart the coursePhoto by N via Unsplash

Chart the Course

Alright, for all you chart and diagram nerds out there, this one’s for you. Chart the Course is a technique for turning your verbal understanding of your struggle into visual representations. This can be in the form of pie charts comparing the size of different aspects of the problem, or it can be in the form of a line chart that plots the amount of pain experienced over time. There’s no one diagram that’s going to give you the perfect idea every time. But converting your verbal understanding into a visual one is a great way to engage the automatic system in your brain. You may already be experiencing hunches about how you can best to innovate. These charts are a great way to illuminate these hunches and turn that inkling of a feeling into a fully-fledged idea.


headhunterPhoto by Rawpixel via Unsplash


In this exercise you pretend you’re a headhunter — the best in the business. Big companies come to you all the time asking for help finding their next top executive. You’re the star in your field because you always find exactly the right person for what the company needed. But with this exercise, your client isn’t a big company; it’s the people you’re trying to help with your new innovation. So you need to come up with a job description for your innovation. What is it that needs to be done? These are the roles and responsibilities for the job you’re hiring for. Once you have the job description, it can be easier to come up with an innovation that fits the bill.

For example – Wanted: an innovation to help people hang pictures on tall walls in their homes. Must be able to work over stair cases and be easily storable.

Once you have this job description, it’s much easier to think of potential candidates to fill the role. Maybe a hammer with an extendable handle. Maybe a precision nail gun. Maybe a ladder with adjustable legs. Maybe a picture frame with an adhesive back. Maybe a service where professionals hang the picture. By focusing on the job description, you can open your mind up to a plethora of diverse possibilities.

These are just a few tactics to help generate new ideas in your pursuit to be more innovative. Check our next post where we cover four more ways to ideate that are better than brainstorming (including my favorite and an homage to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Questions Only).

Published by Ben Haefele

Product Designer. Innovator. Aspiring Ping-Pong Master.

2 thoughts on “Better than Brainstorming – Part 1: 4 Ways to Ideate”

Leave a Reply