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Idea Generating Tools for Creative Thinking

Idea Generating Tools for Creative Thinking

There are endless variations of these ideas, and they go by many different names, in different forums. Many of them overlap and interconnect. You can go online and explore some of the options and variations available. Changing up your creative stimuli is a good method to keep the creative ideas flowing on different projects. In some ways, most of the creative tools are some form of brainstorming. They are meant to draw your ideas, or the group's ideas, out into the open or onto paper, so they can be utilized for whatever task or project you are approaching.

The different tools discussed in this article have different functions and ideal applications. Some work better for either a group or an individual. Others can be modified to serve either one. Some are methods of manipulating your thought processes or environment to set you on a different line of thought. Each one has the potential to inspire and develop your personal creativity.

Mind of the Enemy

The first goes by many different names. One is Mind of the Enemy. Now it is not centered around defining a human enemy, necessarily, or making enemies out of the competition. The enemy in this could be the problem, itself, or the physical causes of the problem being addressed.

This question or line of thought represented in Mind of the Enemy is used in several different creative tools that employ reversal. The difference with Mind of the Enemy is that it does not try to incorporate a full 360 degree approach. It can generate a broad range of answers, but in some ways, it attacks from one angle. It focuses on one aspect of the reversal.

Mind of the Enemy pushes the individual or group to put their minds to the idea of, "How do I cause this problem?" You enter the "mind" of your enemy, and you explore the issue from the standpoint of those forces that are generating the problem, instead of seeking to solve it. On a basic level, this creative tool works to dig deep into the roots of the problem to find all the underlying causes. It can also uncover the motives behind why the problem is being generated. It can reveal connections that can lead to better solutions that might deal with the problem-causers, themselves, even if those causes are not living things. In many ways, this creative tool drives the individual or group to look more at the entire system behind the problem, instead of just the problem in isolation.

Round Robin

The next creative tool is almost solely a tool for groups, and particularly large teams. It addresses an underlying problem with creativity and communication in a team environment in any project-based endeavor. In large groups, leaders and followers emerge. This tends to consolidate ideas in small pockets and limits the creative solutions available. This problem tends to compound with the larger size of the group.

Round Robin is sometimes referred to as Charrette. There are several other names for this same concept. The larger group is broken into smaller groups. Four to seven members of the smaller units is probably the ideal range. If your group does not lend itself to smaller units in this range, it can be attempted in other configurations. Each member contributes an idea to the central question or concept going around the circle. Each member must contribute on his or her turn. Even if that answer is a desperate stab in the dark, it is accepted and the group is to encourage that response. Responses are recorded and can be evaluated later, when all the ideas from all members have been gathered. Members can contribute a new idea, they can build an idea off a previous answer, they can contribute a new question, or they can contribute an answer to a previous question. A facilitator or recorder takes down each answer for use later. It is best to go around multiple times to get out all the ideas available from every member so that the larger group has the full range of possible solutions for consideration after the exercise.

The next creative tool has been put into wide use in business and education circles. It is best suited for groups and is another approach meant to elicit responses and involvement from all members.

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Sticky Note Vote

Sticky Note Vote utilizes any brand of those small sticky notes. It can be helpful to get multiple colors for categories or other levels of organization. Often this is done with large chart paper around the space where the main ideas, concepts, or options are written for everyone to see. This can be done where each member of the group places a note to indicate the options they like or believe in. This can give a visual of where everyone's thoughts are. Discussions can be had to detail the pros and cons of the top choices. Counterarguments can be heard for options on the other end. This process does not make the decision outright, but it can steer the discussion and open the group up.

Further though, Sticky Note Vote can be used to add comments or ideas to a bigger concept. In the same set up, instead of just placing a blank note to cast a vote, the participants can be called on to write an idea on each note and place them on the appropriate categories. Each member is made to participate, but then those contributions can be immediately viewed by the other members. Seeing the spread of ideas can inspire new ideas in other members. One individual may identify a valuable pattern in the responses of others that would have otherwise been overlooked. It also allows ideas to be contributed and reviewed in a non confrontational way before the discussion begins. Each individual in the group can absorb and process all the contributions before the discussion begins. This encourages more open sharing and more thoughtful discussion.

Missing Piece

Missing Piece is another good, creative tool that can be used well with a group or team, but also with individuals. It is particularly good when the concept being studied, or the problem being attacked, already has missing information. It starts by taking two or more big ideas from the project or the issue at hand. These can be specific items, or more big-picture ideas. These need to be fairly well understood, established, or accepted givens. It is important to study the base concepts to be sure what is accepted as a given actually is and still be open to the discovery that what you believe to be true about the ideas might not be exactly as you think. From those established starting points, you explore what could be the missing piece. What are the unseen and unknown connections between the ideas that make them make sense together? What is the connective tissues of the ideas across the entire project or product?

Another approach to Missing Piece is to look at components of a process or series of ideas that do not work. In a way this is very much like substitution, except that you are also considering that the piece being substituted might represent multiple steps, or multiple missing components. The piece "substituted" might need to be returned along with other missing pieces that were not realized before. In this form, Missing Piece looks at why the particular idea doesn't work. Take out the wrong piece and question what is missing that makes that portion of the process work.

Free Drawing

Free Drawing is another creative tool that is easy to employ by an individual. It is particularly good for projects that are already creatively demanding in nature, but it is not to be downplayed for hard science or business projects. It is probably best used in private, or in quiet. Very likely, the drawer won't run into the meeting with his or her scribbles or sketches and claim they, themselves, are the answer; but the drawings can bring out ideas that can be taken and developed into something worthy of pursuing. One key value in this particular creative tool is in accessing portions of the brain that are nonverbal, and even non-linguistic. Ideas and images are stored in all parts of the brain in different ways. The verbal and linguistic sections of the brain are influenced by these subconscious and nonverbal portions, but the ideas themselves are not always as easy to pull out in a form that can be easily, consciously considered. Free Drawing has the potential to access these ideas in a way that makes them come out in a way that also makes them available.

The drawing does not have to be concrete. Do not get stressed. Merely start drawing and keep going. It can be seemingly random lines and shapes at first. Other sketches might come from that. Getting past any blocks will let the ideas start flowing in ways that may have nothing directly to do with the drawings themselves.

Timed List

Timed List is a creative tool that tries to move the thinker from the obvious to the more unexpected ideas. It is done individually, but each member of a group can employ it and bring ideas together. The idea behind this creative tool is to keep writing for a set time limit. Usually around five minutes is a good mark. The hope is to go just a little past comfortable. Some users of this tool suggest just writing random words, if you get stuck. The point is to keep writing. Do not quit. The ideas that come after the feeling of having written everything are the ones that are more creative and more unexpected. These are often the target ideas and the point of the exercise. This is the reason to honor the time limit. This tool is a quick and effective exercise for generating new ideas.

Wishful Thinking

Wishful Thinking is an interesting creative tool. It is probably worth mentioning that this tool is not a waste of time. Essentially participants are asked to list the things they wish for in connection to a particular problem or project. This can be done individually, or as a group. Do not outright dismiss the "pie in the sky" notions that come out. These can lead to creative rethinking of structure and goals. Projects and teams can often suffer from shortsightedness or pessimism. This can declare some possibilities impossible without proper consideration. This can set limits that don't have to exist. Wishful Thinking opens those discussions back up for real, thoughtful consideration. These "wishful thinks" can include resources, goals, end desires, and more. The information gathered can help develop missions, reset goals, re-allocate resources, change direction, and inspire members of the group to give their best. There is great potential in daring to wish.

Purposeful Distraction

Purposeful Distraction is a good, creative tool for taking a step back from a problem, or getting away from a mental block. It is particularly good for an individual or a pair. The advantage of taking it on as a pair is that ideas can be bantered back and forth. Even if one is working individually, it might be of value to bring in an outside person for a discussion, while engaging this creative tool. It is not required, though.

Purposeful Distraction can involve putting together a puzzle, playing an individual mind game, playing chess, or engaging in any physical activity -- from running, to painting, to anything else that engages you in some other active, mental distraction. The discussion can still be on the key subject, but the distraction moves the thinking in a different way.


Contradiction is an interesting, creative tool. It begins with an item that is normally considered a problem, itself. We are confronted by contradictions all the time in work and in life. Often, two things meant to be solutions are in direct opposition to one another resulting in an unintended problem. Often people are placed in the position of having to unravel someone else's contradiction.

This creative tool seeks to explore the contradictions and paradoxes. You can even create one just for the purpose of pushing your thinking. Pick two ideas within an issue that appear to be in direct contradiction to one another. Explore that conflict in every way possible. What are the unseen connections? How can they both be true at once? What are we not understanding about this relationship? What are the real world implications of this contradiction? What do we do about that?

A lot can be discovered by this exploration.


Journaling is a longstanding approach for dealing with ideas. It is typically an individual activity. It is also used over a long term. The value in the ideas is sometimes found in going back to read journals some time later. Seeing what you thought at one point might mean something different to you later and can inspire real breakthroughs on any number of issues. Journals can be private, but that is not to say that their primary purpose is to hide ideas.

Journaling can be focused on a subject, stream of consciousness, based on prompts, reflective on the day, or personal. Combinations of these different approaches are valuable. Journaling can be done on a computer, device, or with pencil and paper. There is value to be considered in using pencil and paper. There seems to be different parts of the brain engaged from writing freehand, rather than in typing. If much of your work is done by computer, you might want to consider journaling by pencil and paper. There is potential for drawing out ideas that would not come in the normal course of your daily activities.

Picking a Spot

The final creative tool we will explore in this article is more of an environmental condition than a mental prompt. It has to do with picking a spot. This is particularly useful for creative activities or work that is repeated regularly or daily. Writers, artists, students, and hobbyists would particularly benefit from this idea, but it has applications to everyone in every industry.

For creative work, while still employing all these other creative tools, too, conduct these activities in the same place, and even at the same time of day, if possible. If you are a writer, go to the same place at the same time each day to produce the words. Same, if you are an artist, cartoonist, etc. Your brain will become primed for the work at those times. Being creative in the same physical spot can create cues that unlock that creativity easier.

When you get stuck, it might help to change your spot either once, briefly, or for a stretch to set up a new pattern. The use of physical location can be a valuable conduit for personal creativity.

There are endless variations on these and other creative tools. These will serve as a great start in unlocking your personal creativity.

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