The key to generating a lot of ideas is to separate your thinking into two stages: possibility thinking and practicality thinking. Possibility thinking is the raw generation of ideas, without judgment or evaluation of any kind. You turn off your internal critic. Your internal critic is that part of your mind that is constantly telling you why something can’t work or can’t be done. The strategy is to generate as many ideas, obvious and novel, as possible, without criticism of any kind.
Creative thinking involves a Darwinian process of the mind. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die in a short period of time. Nature creates many new possibilities and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. Creative thinking is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires two mechanisms: one for producing many novel ideas and a second for determining which ideas should be retained and evaluated.
After you have created the maximum number of ideas possible, you change your strategy to practicality thinking, which is the evaluation and judgment of ideas, to find the ideas that have the most value to you. Edison once declared that he constructed three thousand different theories in connection with electric lighting, each one of them reasonable, before he decided on the one theory that was the most practical and profitable. His first goal was to construct as many possibilities as he could and then he turned to the business of evaluation to find the one that was the most practical and profitable. Possibility thinking and practicality thinking are two separate mental operations and there is no compromise, in-between position.
QUANTITY BREEDS QUALITY
Quantity breeds quality. Imagine a pearl diver on an island in the South Seas. He pushes his canoe off from shore, paddles out into the lagoon, dives deep into the water, picks an oyster off the bottom, surfaces, climbs into his boat, paddles to shore, and opens the shell. Finding nothing inside but an oyster, he pushes his canoe off again, and begins paddling into the lagoon.
What an incredible waste of time. The reasonable thing to do is not to paddle back to shore with one oyster, but to dive again and again, to fill up the canoe with oysters and then return to shore. Pearls are rare-a diver must open many oysters before finding one. Only a foolish person would waste time and energy making a separate trip for each oyster. It’s the same with producing ideas. Many times we’ll produce one or two ideas and proceed as if they are the answer. But creative ideas, like pearls, occur infrequently. So the sensible thing to do is to produce many ideas before we evaluate. Just as a good idea may stop you from going on to discover a great one, a great idea may stop you from discovering the right one.
Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses for the common brick. No doubt, you would come up with some, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six ideas. However, if I asked you to list 60 uses for the brick as fast as you can, you would have quite a few in a short period of time.
A quota focuses your energy in a competitive way that guarantees fluency of thought. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. Because we exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.
By forcing yourself to come up with 60 ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity. Early ideas are usually not true ideas. Exactly why this is so is not known, but one hypothesis is that familiar and safe responses lie closest to the surface of our consciousness and therefore are naturally thought of first. Creative thinking depends on continuing the flow of ideas long enough to purge the common, habitual ones and produce the unusual and imaginative.
Thomas Edison guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. He also assigned invention quotas. His own personal invention quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months.
ELABORATE YOUR IDEAS
Once you have a list of alternative ideas, you can elaborate and change them. Every new idea is some addition or modification to something that already exists. You take a subject and manipulate or change it into something else. There are nine principal ways you can manipulate a subject. These ways were first formally suggested by Alex Osborn, the father of brainstorming, and later arranged by Bob Eberle into the mnemonic SCAMPER.
S = Substitute?
C = Combine?
A = Adapt?
M = Magnify? = Modify?
P = Put to other uses?
E = Eliminate?
R = Rearrange? = Reverse?
You isolate the subject you want to think about and ask the checklist of SCAMPER questions to see what new ideas and thoughts emerge. Think about any subject, from improving the ordinary paperclip to reorganizing your corporation, and apply the “Scamper” checklist of questions. You’ll find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily, as you ask:
Can you substitute something?
Can you combine your subject with something else?
Can you adapt something to your subject?
Can you magnify or add to it?
Can you modify or change it in some fashion?
Can you put it to some other use?
Can you eliminate something from it?
Can you rearrange it?
What happens when you reverse it?
You take a subject and change it into something else. (e.g. drilled petroleum becomes chemical feedstock becomes synthetic rubber becomes automobile tires. Natural gas becomes polyethylene becomes milk jugs. Mined ore becomes metal becomes wire becomes parts of a motor.)
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.