How to Come Up With Ideas: A Proven (And Fun) Technique

How to Come Up With Ideas

In his new book, 21 Days to a Big Idea: Creating Breakthrough Business Concepts, author and Fortune 500 innovation expert Bryan Mattimore, co-founder of Growth Engine, reveals a three-week plan for coming up with an idea that could change everything. This excerpt is a reminder of the importance of dreaming up the impossible — along with directions for doing it again. And again. And again.

How to Come Up With Ideas

There’s a famous, ten-year research study in the world of creativity. Futurist and author George Land had five year-old kids take the NASA creativity test. He then had them retake the test off and on over a ten-year period. The results were both startling and depressing.

When the kids were five years old, 98% of them tested at the highest level for creativity. At age ten, the percentage of kids who were still testing as creative genius had dropped to 30%. At age 15, the figure was 12%. What could account for such a precipitous drop in creativity?

How to Come Up With Ideas

It was clear to the researchers that school, and the emphasis on getting the single “right answer,” was to blame. As educator Neil Postman said, children enter schools as question marks, and leave as periods.

In the creativity consulting work we do, we often encourage our clients to try to rediscover the fantastical thinking they were so good at when they were young. It’s not easy. As adults, we’ve been trained to be hard-nosed realists. We’ve come to see the wishful thinking we did as kids as impractical or stupid, and generally a complete waste of our valuable time.

The irony is that when adults can recapture the unbounded and unlimited imaginings of their childhood, important breakthroughs, even billion-dollar industries, can be the result.

So, Mr. Bell, you want to talk through a wire. Good luck with that. A spacecraft that will travel fifty times as fast as a speeding bullet? Yeah, right. Have access to every book ever written or song ever sung in a device that will fit in your pocket? Dream on, fellow.

When I worked through the program outlined in my new book, here were some wishes I had:

How to Come Up With Ideas
  • I wish I could inhabit the body and mind of twenty-one different famous people for the next three weeks.
  • I wish I could take an imaginary/virtual-reality tour of Moscow before getting there.
  • I wish companies would post their creative challenges, just like they post their job vacancies.
  • I wish I could brainstorm new ideas with help from great people in history.
  • I wish fruit tasted as good as ice cream.

The more “out there” and seemingly impossible, the better. As author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Now It’s Your Turn: Generate 20 “Impossible Wishes”

Try this creative brainstorming technique on your own or with your entire team. Remember, you don’t have to be limited by what’s possible!

Your assignment for today is to create 20 wishes, the more magical the better. The key to succeeding with this exercise is to push beyond the mundane or practical…and wish for the impossible.

What comes after you’ve generated these wishes? You invite back the hard-nosed, reality-based part of yourself that was so well-trained in school to help you turn your fantasies into realities.

There are a couple of questions we’ve found useful for helping you do this. First, you might ask yourself, “As absurd or impractical this wish is, is there some way I can make it a viable idea?”

The second, more pragmatic question to ask: “Is there something I can take out of or be inspired by in my wish that will lead to a new idea?”

With the first question, you’re trying to make the impossible idea real. With this second question, you’re using the impossible idea to help you think of a different idea.

Reprinted by permission of Diversion Books. Excerpted from 21 Days to a Big Idea: Creating Breakthrough Business Concepts. Copyright 2015 Bryan Mattimore. All rights reserved.