The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas — Linus Pauling

Something that I have noticed while I was in school and in the corporate world was that the people that came up with the right answer, the quickest, were often rewarded. I remember sitting in the class and a student asked “can I go to the bathroom?” The teacher said that this was not the right way to ask the question and decided that this was a learning opportunity for the student, so he said “that’s not the right way to ask to go to the bathroom, what is the right way?” When the student looked confused, he opened it up to the classroom and asked “who can help him out?” My hand immediately shot up and I said “it’s ‘May I go to the bathroom?'”

This memory made it clear to me that school trains us to find the right answer. Find the right answer, and you get a reward (good marks, praise, etc.). Find the right answer quicker, and you get the reward faster.

All too often, when people come to me with problems, my mind works as quickly as it can to come up with a solution. In essence, I have been trained to ‘converge’ quickly on a solution, rather than spending time to ‘diverge’ on different alternatives and options.

For the last few years, recognizing this, I have been training myself to unlearn what school has taught me and to spend more time generating ideas. Because as Linus Pauling says, getting a good idea is about generating a lot of ideas. Ask anyone around you (business leaders, entrepreneurs, C-suite executives) how they come up with great ideas, and if they are being honest with you, they will say that they came up with many other rejected ideas before the great one showed up.

How I have been training myself to come up with more ideas? Here are six strategies that I use that I believe can help you come up with a lot of ideas:

Pay attention to the small things

Today’s competitive swimmers are significantly faster than those of twenty years ago. Why?

It’s not because today’s swimmers are bigger, stronger or taller. One small thing that’s had a huge impact on swimmers is the development of the lightweight binocular swimming goggle. Swimmers without googles, swimming in chlorinated water, can only swim 2,000 to 3,000 meters per session without eye irritation. The invention of the google means that swimmers can work out for longer and longer distances, which means that they are training harder and improving their swim times.

Ask yourself when you are trying to brainstorm ideas, what small things can you pay attention to, tweak or improve?

Look in other fields

If you look at the field of bionics, it is a field of engineering where natural systems are adapted for human use. For example, looking at a fly take off vertically leads to innovations in aircraft taking off vertically. Or do you know the story of how velcro was invented? A hunter was walking in the woods and after returning home, found burdock burrs on his pants were annoyingly difficult to remove. He looked at these burrs under a microscope and found that there were millions of hooks, and thus, the idea for velcro was born.

Take a look at magazines in a completely different field than the area you are looking at. The more divergent the fields of study, the more interesting your idea will be.

Slay a dragon

In this case, a dragon represents a fear that we may have. I for example, have an irrational fear of heights. This means that whenever I travel, I prefer to experience things where I don’t have to be up high. I avoid rollercoasters, sight seeing on top of skyscrapers, bridges, canyons, etc. This also means that when I am trying to think of different experiences to go to in a new city, these are not top of mind for me. But these fears can also be sources of new opportunities.

Similarly, maybe you are a business owner who is afraid of online advertising. Or is afraid to shoot videos or stream content because it might capture something inappropriate. Where are the places you are afraid to look for ideas? And can these be turned into opportunities?

Use obstacles to break out of ruts

One day, while I was driving home from work, my usual route was blocked due to road construction. I had to detour and take a completely different route than I was used to. But as I was on this new route, I found some restaurants and stores that I had not seen before. And it also turned out that this new route was a neat way of avoiding the traffic that I faced with my usual route. The ‘obstacle’ of the road construction, helped to unleash new ideas.

The next time you find yourself stuck trying to find good ideas, introduce constraints. How can you complete the six figure project if you had no money? How can you complete a six month project in six weeks? How can you complete the project with no resources at all?

Find ideas you already have

Our mind is like a dark attic that is full of ideas and experiences. For example, one day, your partner is cooking a dish that, when you smell it, evokes childhood memories. Would you have thought of those childhood memories without the associated smell? Maybe.

The trick then is to find ways to ‘shine a light’ on these ideas and experiences you have in your mind. One way to do this is to browse through a dictionary (or generate a random word on Google) and to see what ideas, experiences or concepts this random word generates for you. For example, the word ‘backyard’ may evoke ideas of a playground, rolling around in the lawn, cutting your lawn when you were younger as a chore, playing soccer with your siblings or more. This then may lead to new ideas.

Don’t stop on the first good idea you have

Like I mentioned, we often stop on the first good idea we have. For example, think of as many ideas as you can to figure out how to stop a skunk from smelling.

  • Put it in an air-tight box
  • Call animal control to get it off your property
  • Chase it away with a broomstick

These are all good ideas, but why stop at three?

  • Block the skunk’s nose
  • Introduce a coyote to eat the skunk
  • Fill the air with perfume
  • Vacuum the smell from the skunk
  • Aim an electric fan at the skunk to blow the smell away

When you continue to generate ideas, a few things happen. Your standard for a ‘good’ idea drops as you think of more and more ideas. Your imagination goes wild as you enter the realm of ridiculousness. Finally, ideas that you may have initially thought were ‘bad’, may lead to good ideas.

Final thoughts

I wish I could say that I came up with these strategies, but no, these strategies all came from the book A Kick In The Seat Of The Pants by Roger von Oech, who is also the best selling author of A Whack on the Side of the Head. I will say that these strategies have helped me come up with a lot of ideas. Notice that I did not say good ideas. But if you generate enough ideas, even if 1 / 100 or 1 / 1000 ideas are ‘good enough’, you only need one good idea.