Although I call this the Forest and the Tree Strategy, I learned about this strategy for generating ideas from Edward de Bono in his excellent book Serious Creativity.

The strategy is simply this: any time you want to generate ideas, examine the concepts at a tree or a forest level.

Here’s an example: imagine you are a dentist and you think there’s a market for a new type of toothbrush. The problem is you don’t know how you would redesign the toothbrush. You brainstorm for a few hours but feel you aren’t getting anywhere with the concept of ‘toothbrush’ – especially when it comes to generating ideas. So, you look at the ‘trees’ – smaller concepts within the concept of the toothbrush. A smaller concept? Brushing away food. You can take the concept of brushing away food and generate different ideas based on that one concept: for example, you use a broom to brush dust and debris into a dustpan, but you could instead use a vacuum. What if you used a vacuum to suck away food stuck on your teeth? How about another small concept? A toothbrush is used to apply toothpaste. You can apply toothpaste in different ways: say like a paintbrush as if you are applying paint, a liquid gel that fills all the gaps like a drain cleaner, wall repair that is one colour when you apply it, and a different colour after some time.

Don’t like looking at smaller concepts? Look at bigger concepts for additional ideas. A toothbrush is part of an overall hygiene program. Hygiene can be a similar concept to maintenance. One type of maintenance people do? Getting rid of their old clothing. Clothing can be purchased in a subscription – companies send you a box of clothing, and you pay for what you keep. What if you signed up for a subscription model with your dentist – they send you toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, etc. – since they know your teeth, they can send you tailored products to your health needs. Or another big concept is a toothbrush as part of a travel kit. There are miniature versions of products – why not a miniature toothbrush that doubles as floss?

I call the strategy the Forest and the Trees strategy – sometimes you need to get into the trees and see individual concepts; other times you need to step back and look at the overall concept from above to see the forest. Each view gives you multiple concepts to work with and each concept gives you multiple perspectives (and ideas) that you can ‘translate’ back to your original concept.