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By ITS Education Asia

[Problem Solving Guide-Home]

Idea generation techniques - Some useful ways to help generate new ideas.

The major difficulty in generating new ideas to help solve problems is" escaping the" habitual ways in. which we associate information. This 'logic of experience' hinders us in combining information in unusual ways, with the result that we don't explore all the possible routes to a solution,

There are many different techniques which help to generate new ideas, some using mental strategies and others relying on mechanical methods. The emphasis in using them is on the quantity of ideas produced rather than the quality. This gives a large number of ideas to use in devising solutions.

An important element in using nearly all of these techniques is to suspend judgement, which means avoiding any type of evaluation. Evaluating ideas puts a brake on the imagination and inhibits the mind in making unusual and potentially useful connections. Sometimes Ws easy to come up with unusual or radical ideas, for example when we know we are only 'playing'. However, as soon as we face a serious task we exclude these ideas, either consciously or unconsciously, simply because they are not commonly associated, with a practical solution.

During idea generation you should try to think in a playful way by deliberately suspending judgement. A useful warm-up is to do a fluency exercise to get you in the right frame of mind.

Generating ideas

Fluency exercises

Fluency is the ability to produce a large number of ideas in a short time. There are many simple, playful exercises for the imagination which can help to improve fluency. Although this improvement is not always permanent, these exercises are very useful' as a warm-up for other, more productive, idea-generation techniques. In group problem solving they serve the additional purpose of overcoming individuals' reticence to voice unusual ideas.


Fluency exercises are typically simple and require you to write down as many ideas as possible in a short time, usually a minute or two. One example is to select a common object and list as many possible uses for it as you can think of in and write down all the consequences you can think of, eg what would happen if you woke up one morning and all electrical appliances had ceased to function?

Your flexibility of thinking is also revealed in these exercises. The more wide-ranging your responses, the more flexible your thinking. Listing uses for newspapers, for example, you may include more common uses such as conveying news and wrapping objects, but overlook the less obvious ones such as pulping to produce bricks for burning or rolling up tightly to use as a weapon.

Fluency and flexibility usually increase with practice, so when you have a couple of minutes to relax it can be productive fun to do one of these exercises.


A women thinking

Free association

This technique consists of allowing the mind to wander without deliberate direction. You name the first thing that comes to mind in response to a trigger word, symbol, idea or picture, then use that as a trigger, and so on, quickly repeating the process to produce a stream of associations. The important thing is to avoid justifying the connection between successive ideas. This encourages spontaneity and the emergence of ideas seemingly unrelated to the trigger word.

Free association delves deep into the memory, helping you to discover remote relationships similar to those uncovered ,using mind maps. To be productive, the ideas need to be recorded, either in writing or on audio tape. This can interfere with the free flow of ideas and therefore requires practice.


A very simple way of getting additional ideas is to discuss (the problem with other people. They will often have a different perspective on the problem and its implications, and different values and ideals. Even if they can't contribute significant ideas directly, what they say may trigger new lines of thought for you. Discussing your problem with other people is a very valuable supplement to other idea generation techniques.


Daydreaming is frowned upon and actively discouraged as a serious thinking skill, being labeled as fanciful, indulgent and unproductive. In fact it's one of the basic thinking tools of all good problem solvers. It has several important qualities:

  • the label' daydreaming' helps you to think in terms of time out for playful, uninhibited thinking
  • it can be fitted into spare moments
  • it involves only thoughts not actions, so there is no risk
  • it's private, so you are not open to ridicule by others
  • it often involves feelings and emotions which add a valuable dimension to your thinking
  • ideas can be manipulated quickly and potential obstacles foreseen
  • it helps to develop plans which prepare you to look out for information and opportunities to help you achieve objectives.

Productive daydreaming has to be directed towards a particular goal and is often called wishful thinking. There is no crime in wishing for the apparently impossible. Inventors do it all the time. If you set your sights high you can use daydreaming to help you build plans for achieving your goals.


This involves thinking about a problem in visual terms. It can be useful in solving many types of problem, particularly those involving shapes and patterns. For example, if you had to devise a formula for measuring the amount of carpet required to cover a spiral staircase you would probably picture the staircase in your mind automatically. In other situations the choice may not be so obvious, but visualising is a very powerful,. and flexible way of thinking about problems and it can be developed with practice.


When you get stuck with a problem after working on it for some time it's often productive to take a break from it. Once we have absorbed all the relevant information and stop work on a problem to do something else, it appears that the mind continues to manipulate the information unconsciously looking for relevant relationships and patterns. Often a new idea or even a solution will come to mind after this period of incubation.

The phrase 'sleep on it' has arisen because sleep is an enforced period of incubation. There are many reports of people awaking with new insights to a problem they have been working on. For example, Kekule is said to have discovered the ring structure of benzene after dreaming of a snake biting its tail. When time allows, putting aside a problem for a while can help in giving you a new perspective, if not a solution.

Check lists

These are lists of thought provoking questions. They can serve two basic purposes: to prompt the search for specific information and to stimulate ideas. Idea generation check lists work by asking what the result would be if you manipulated information in a particular way.   

Check lists can be used on ideas or objects and have been developed to serve various purposes. One well known example, the 'Check List for New Ideas' developed by Alex Osborn (in Applied Imagination, Charles Scribner & Sons, New York 1957), consists of a series of stimulating questions under the headings

Put to other uses?

Adapt? .








Questions under the heading 'Rearrange', for example, are: Interchange' components? Other patterns? Other layout? Other sequence? Transpose cause and effect? Change pace? Change schedule?

The ideal check list is one that you have designed to use in a particular situation. One simple check list 'which is easy to remember and can be used as a basis for writing your own list of questions, is known by the acronym SCAMPER:

Substitute? Combine? Adapt? Modify? Put to other uses? Eliminate? Reverse?

Check lists are very flexible and, if used Wisely, can be very useful when you get stuck with a problem.       

Bug lists

This term is used by James L. Adams in his book Conceptual Blockbusting (W.W. Norton, New York and London 1979), to refer to a list of things which cause you, or others, irritation or . dissatisfaction. It's purpose is to stimulate the search for opportunities.

This method can be applied usefully in organisations by soliciting the opinions of staff in terms of factors such as: What things take you more time than you think are necessary? Why? What situations cause you frustration? Why? What things do you have to do which you think are unnecessary? Why? Answers to questions such as these reveal opportuni­ties for improving job satisfaction of staff as well as for' improving efficiency.


One of the dangers in problem solving is choosing a solution to a current problem because it has worked on a similar (analogous) problem in the past. However, analogies can provide a model which gives greater insight into a problem.

An example of how analogy can lead to innovation is the float technique of glass production. While Alastair Pilkington was washing dishes he noticed the grease floating on the water. When the float technique was perfected it consisted of molten glass floating on a bed of molten tin. Similarly, while at a wine harvest celebration the German printer Johannes Gutenberg is said to have seen the analogy between the wine­ press and the concept of printing.

The natural world abounds with analogies which are particularly useful in areas such as engineering and design. You can search for analogies relevant to particular problems or you may come across one by chance while you are working on a problem.


This term is used to refer to techniques for distancing yourself from a problem to create a fresh perspective. It involves finding metaphors - words or phrases not directly applicable to the problem - which help to suggest solutions. These may have no practical value but they can be made to 'force-fit' the problem, ie forcing them to have some relevance. Here are two examples of excursions:

1. Take an idea from the problem definition and look for examples of it in a totally different environment. For example, if you were looking for ways to reduce the antagonism between members of a team and looked at the world of astronomy:         

  • Gravity pulls planets together - a grave situation might pull the team together.
  • The sun 'brightens' the earth - what might brighten team members?
  • A dying star disappears in an explosion – would an 'explosion' clear the air between team members?

2. Look around the room and let your gaze fall on some object. Then try to relate this to your problem. For example, you've presented a report containing inaccurate information given to you by your deputy and it has lost you an important sale. Your gaze falls on a stapler:

  • 'pin' the blame on your deputy
  • 'join' forces with your deputy or 'stick' your neck out to win back the sale.

This technique is not easy to use but it can bring totally new perspectives to a problem.


The paradox, also known as a 'book title', is a two-word phrase, usually an adjective and noun, which captures the essence of a problem as a stimulating contradiction. For example, you. have a single opportunity to meet two long-standing, valuable clients but at the same time and in different locations. Both meetings are vitally important in their own way. Useful paradoxes might be

  • attentive neglect - you will have to neglect one client but want to appear attentive
  • disloyal allegiance - you want to avoid appearing disloyal to the client you don't meet
  • singular double - you are only one person but need to be two.

Paradoxes, like excursions, help to create new perspectives and suggest new routes to a solution.

Paradoxes, like excursions, help to create new perspectives and suggest new routes to a solution.

Forced relationships

This simple technique combines unrelated objects or ideas to see what new, practical combinations result. There are many products on the market which are the result of such a combination, eg the portable digital which includes a stopwatch and calculator; televisions with a newspaper-type information service, like Oracle and Blackberry; the Swiss Army knife; the combined washing machine and tumble dryer; birthday cards which play a musical tune.

Attribute listing

This is an analytical technique used to identify ways in which a product, service or system could be improved.It consists of three stages:

  •  the physical attributes or characteristics of each component of the item are described       

  • the functions of each component are described.

  • every component is examined in turn to see if changing its physical attributes would bring about an improvement in its function.

A simple example would be the screwdriver, which has numerous improved variations, including a filament for current detection, multiple screw-in shafts, magnetic blades and ratchet mechanisms.

Attribute listing can also be used to search for alternative areas in which a product or service could be used, by looking for applications for individual attributes. The attributes of optical fibres, for instance, have made them useful in fields as diverse as telecommunications, medicine and exhibition lighting. .

Another use of attribute listing is in value analysis.This involves looking at the cost of each component of the item in relation to the function it performs. Components which are disproportionately costly in relation to their function can be either eliminated or ways found to reduce their cost. The aim is to increase the ratio of value against cost.

A fourth application is in analysing systems to find areas of potential improvement.For example, listing the attributes of data processing functions within an organisation may reveal two areas which require the same or a similar resource but which are currently served by separate systems. Serving both needs by one. resource may result in cost savings. Another example is where the attributes of a waste product are used to search for ways in which it might be used as a raw material for another product or a new product, possibly using some parts of the existing production system.

Morphological analysis

This term refers to a variety of techniques which are similar to forced relationships and attribute listing. They can be applied to ideas, problems, objects or systems, which are broken down into their individual components so that every possible combination can be searched for something new and practical.       .

Although there are several variations, a simple method involves the following stages: the parameters of the situation are listed; each one is subdivided into its smallest parts; these are represented in a matrix; then all possible combinations are examined.

The main use of morphological analysis is in the develop­ment of new products, services and systems eg analysing the components of current successful products to find new combinations of attractive features. It has been particularly successful in the area of new technologies. Although it's time-consuming it forces a thorough search of all the possible combinations which would not be possible unaided.

Deciding which type of model and idea generation technique it is best to use is often determined by the type of problem you are tackling and what you are trying to achieve. In situations where you have a choice of several methods, practice will tell you which ones work best for you.

Although some of the techniques may appear cum­bersome and time-consuming, with practice you will find that they become less mechanical as the styles of thinking they encourage become incorporated into your natural problem solving style.


  • The human mind cannot hold a complete picture of a complex problem, so it's often difficult to see all the relationships involved.
  • Creating a model of a problem -helps to clarify the relationships between its different parts.
  • We develop habitual ways of looking at situations which prevents us seeing beyond the obvious.


Read the next article: Solving problems using a group - advantages and disadvantages

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