When you’re stuck for ideas, try these three questions

FIRE!!
FIRE!! (Photo credit: Thomas’s Pics)

The experts will tell you that if you want to create new ideas all you need to do is get out a pen or pencil and stare at a blank sheet of paper and write down your ideas.

Has this ever worked for you?

I’ve found that it’s very difficult unless you come prepared to you blank sheet and at least have some questions in hand that can spur your imagination.

Ideas can be elusive. They may come when you least expect them. They can grow from tiny sparks or embers into red hot coals. Sometimes ideas seem so powerful it’s as if they have been set alight – by passion and energy.

Someone mentioned the other day how John Lennon would work around an idea or topic and slowly gravitate towards a new idea. This sort of indirect way of coming up with new ideas is often how the process actually takes place. You may not have ideas for a while and then suddenly things seem to connect, fuse and combine. You remember seeing something in a shop window. You recall something someone said to you recently. You think about a recent experience. Suddenly, all these three experiences – observation, listening and first-hand involvement – connect and an idea pops into your head.

Yet I’ve always been a bit suspicious of “recipes” or “templates” for creativity. A recipe that works for one person may not work for another.

Even real recipes for food don’t always have the same outcome or can be a flop. I had a great meal of green Thai carry at a restaurant in Fish Hoek, Cape Town, with some friends in January and liked it so much that I tried to find a recipe on the Internet. I came across many but few of the recipes seemed to match the food that I had eaten. Eventually I took about three or four the recipes, highlighted the basic ingredients and made a recipe of my own that was much more to my satisfaction. The point is: it’s better to come up with your own “recipe” than to merely cut-and-paste a recipe from someone else.

Innovation isn’t something that can be reduced to a formula, turned into a formal structured process or be simplified into fixed rules. Nor can you just copy or imitate the methods of another company and expect fixed results.

With this healthy scepticism in mind, here are some questions you should ask yourself before you start to come up with ideas when facing that blank page:

The first thing is to frame your challenge in a question such as: In what ways might I better come up with new products, tools and services (in the field that I’m interested in)?

Then think about these “warmup” questions for personal brainstorming:

What hidden or “latent” needs do customers have? An example: Oxo Good Grip came up with a new potato peeler handle that helped people with chronic arthritis who struggle to use traditional peelers.

What make-shift or home-made solutions are people using because products or services are not available on the market? For example, people started making their own handcrafted soaps, body lotions and shampoos from natural ingredients because they could not find them on supermarket shelves.

I recently spotted motorcyclist using a plastic storage container on the back of his bike. It’s cheap and more lightweight than those supplied by the motorcycle brand or original equipment manufacturer (OEM). The storage container is a make-shift solution that could be improved by an entrepreneur in the motorcycle field.

What problems, complaints or difficulties have you heard people mentioned where there is no existing product or service to meet their needs?

Try these 3 questions and come up with some of your own. These little kickstarter questions will help you to start to think more deeply about your subject and the opportunities that may lie hidden or uncovered. Having some tinder wood or fire lighters to start a fire seems better than furiously trying to light your creative fire with a tiny box of matches.

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