Constant flow of ideasIn today’s connected and content-based economy, one of the most important and valuable skills you can have is to be able to generate great ideas on demand.  I’m used to producing over 200 ideas per week and have been surprised recently at how many colleagues and friends say they are running out of ideas. Thanks to them for stimulating this series.

An unstoppable stream of fresh ideas

My income depends on producing ideas on-call and – as I hope will soon become obvious – I leave nothing to chance.  This post is the first in a series where I will be sharing with you some of the most useful strategies, tactics, tools and techniques that I rely on everyday to ensure an unstoppable stream of fresh ideas.

Article Version: 2.2, 21st December 2009

Warning: what follows is based on one person’s experience, reported anecdotally.

Part 1: Enrich your creative inputs

A key creativity driver is to feed your brain a rich diet of fresh inputs.  Simply put, ‘genius in = genius out’.  The more varied the inputs, the more raw material that is available for your brain to chew on and connect in new and interesting ways.

1. Study brain performance experts

Cutting straight to the chase, the people who know most about getting peak creative performance from your brain are the people who have spent a lifetime doing it.  Learn as much as you can about unleashing your brain’s potential from the experts.

The following titles will get you started:

Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot by Richard Restak, M.D. (Amazon link);

De Bono’s Thinking Course by Edward de Bono (Amazon link);

Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner (Amazon link).

Books by brain specialists

2. Scan everything – regularly

Keep your inputs fresh and well-primed by scanning (i.e. glancing over briefly) a wide variety of readily available written material. For example:

  • go to your local library and scan the latest magazines across a range of categories;
  • each time you visit the library, go to a different section and scour the bookshelves for interesting titles and ideas;
  • go to a good newsagent (one with a wide variety of newspapers, journals, books & magazines from around the world) and scan the cover pages;
  • scan the Saturday and Sunday newspapers.  They give a good snapshot of what’s going on in the world;
  • scan your personal library of books and magazines regularly;
  • scan the Amazon best-seller and New York Times best-seller lists regularly.

On-shelf, my books are arranged randomly.  As disorganized as this sounds, this mixing up of titles and genres helps stir up my thinking and make new connections between ideas as I scan the spines on-shelf.

There are hundreds of books in my library, so bar-coding them into Google has made scanning and searching much easier.

Scanning magazines

(Pic: a magazine rack from my local newsagent)

3. Surround yourself with genius

Change your company if necessary, but get around people who think differently from you – people with different experience and opinions who will stimulate your imagination and brainstorm ideas.

I’ve recently been attending the Northside Coffee Mornings.  This is a group of energetic, entrepreneurial leaders who met via Twitter and are hungry to share ideas, discuss and debate opportunities, and collaborate on innovative projects.

4. Become super-aware of priorities, pressures and problems

Develop a heightened awareness of what’s important to the people around you – especially in terms of their issues and problems.  Connecting problems with solutions is a huge driver of the creative process.

I follow a small, defined group of leaders on Twitter – around 80. This smaller number means I can read all of their tweets, stay close to what’s happening in their day, and correspond with them regularly.  This leads to rich inputs about what matters to people and what their issues are, which in term stimulates creativity.

5. Interact with like-minds, on-line

Again, building on Point 4, make it a priority to interact with people online.  For example, on Twitter it’s easy to interact with others when you follow each other.  Sharing specific and relevant ideas, recommendations and suggestions quickly leads to a constant source of inputs coming your way.

Many of the leaders I follow on Twitter regularly send me (via Direct Message) suggestions, recommendations and ideas.  The more they get to know me, the better these generous inputs become. Often we continue the interaction on Skype for a two-way video conversation – an even richer source of quality inputs.

6. Brainstorm with masterminds

Have strong mentors who you can meet with regularly. Choose people who are much smarter, more successful and more experienced than you (or preferably, all three) – from a variety of disciplines.  It’s important that they challenge and stretch you – inspire you to be your very best.

I have ten mentors who represent a wide variety of fields including business strategy, marketing, spirituality, literature and finance.  Throughout the year I communicate with each of them several times, and so get regular, high quality input and debate.

7. Capture the magic

Whenever you meet with people, takes notes.  Expect that you are going to hear and create fresh thoughts, and make sure you write them down.  As a matter of courtesy, you may like to ask their permission – especially if it’s your first meeting i.e. “Do you mind if I take notes?”

The first thing I do when meeting with anybody is get out my notepad and pencil. This is for two key reasons: firstly, to record interesting thoughts and ideas from the other person, and secondly, to record any ideas I come up with during the conversation.  Reviewing these notes later on typically stimulates further thinking and ideas.

Discussion notes

8. Tune into the zeitgeist

Develop an ear, eye and heart for the mood and trends that come and go in our society.  This can be done by taking simple actions such as listening to people, scanning everything (see Point 2), and following selected blogs, websites and Twitter streams.

Here are three examples I regularly check:

Google Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist on 43 Things


9. Find unexpected combinations

Ideas can be triggered by reading unexpected combinations of words and phrases. Although reading in general is a good source of such combinations, Amazon have made it even easier with their publishing of Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases, or “CAPs”. These are people, places, events, or important topics mentioned frequently in a book.

For fresh inputs, I often search for books by innovative thinkers, for example Malcolm Gladwell or Daniel Pink.

Upon choosing a book (provided it has been scanned by Amazon, and many have), a group of key phrases are given.

Daniel Pink 1

Clicking on “More” to the right of these phrases, gives details of Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases – both sources of fresh inputs.

Daniel Pink 2

10. Become a trainee polyglot

This will sound extreme, but it’s important to think right outside the dots in this discussion.  Learning several foreign languages at the same time will dramatically increase your creative inputs.

Some readers will be aware of my Project F.A.M.E., the objective of which is to be able to fluently speak, read and write French, Mandarin and Arabic.  The ‘E’ stands for English – the only language I was familiar with before starting the project.

The project, which started in July last year, is focused on learning all three languages simultaneously using only dead time or parallel time (i.e. the time available in parallel to doing a cognitively less demanding task e.g. housework, gardening, walking etc) i.e. not work time, family time or spare time.  More about this in future posts.  As far as this post is concerned, the ‘bottom-line’ benefits in terms of creative inputs include:

  • a radical increase in the size of my vocabulary – which is growing daily;
  • the ability to start thinking in other languages – which leads to fresh, new perspectives;
  • a rich influx of new knowledge e.g. about culture, history (word-origins), politics, literature and geography;
  • a very useful way of connecting and sharing ideas with people from other cultures.  For example, just hearing some of my ideas expressed in French and Mandarin has lead to more and better ideas.

Foreign language resources

11. Pay special attention to negativity

Building on Point 4, the negative language that people use to whine and complain can provide a useful signpost to creative inputs.  Heighten your awareness of words and phrases such as:

  • I am completely frustrated
  • It’s terribly frustrating
  • I’m disappointed.
  • The problem is…
  • We struggle with this everyday.

Behind such phrases lurk issues, problems and areas of dissatisfaction – which to us, can point the way to new and better solutions and ideas.

I was reading a blog post recently about dissatisfaction with retail customer service What Timberland Taught Me About Retail. It triggered many comments by people describing similar experiences. Being highly tuned to negative words such as those above – which were taken from the Timberland example – I found they triggered many ideas for business-related opportunities.

12. Read deep, far and wide

Getting into the habit of regular reading across a broad range of genres will richly reward your quest for creative inputs.  The key here is to feed your curiosity.  Go where your interest takes you, then branch into less familiar territory.  Be sure to include plenty of material unrelated to your profession.

Having stopped watching television some years ago, and with so much good fiction and non-fiction material available, I find it easy and very enjoyable to build reading into my daily routine.  For example, see The 42 books I read last year instead of watching TV.

If you struggle to make the time to read, audio-books are a cost-effective way to get started e.g.

13. Watch short, punchy audio-visual material

Another effective way to build creative inputs quickly is to take advantage of the excellent range of high-quality video and visual material to be found on-line.

Sources I check regularly are:

Share your ideas and experience

  • What would you add to this list?
  • Where do you go for fresh creative inputs?
  • What are some of your ‘outside the dots’ sources of creative inputs?


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