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11 Tips for Better Brainstorming & Creative Problem Solving

“Creativity is expressing your ideas in a full-contact, full-color way. It is using as many senses as possible to express an idea. It is the zone from which great, useful things are created.”
Pam Slim, via Copyblogger


Everyone likes to say they’re a creative problem solver — and we all are, at least some of the time. That being said, it’s so easy to get bogged down in workplace routines and forget to challenge ourselves to think creatively on a daily basis. To combat this, I’ve come up with a list of 11 different ways to get your creative juices flowing. (Side note: I hate the term “creative juices,” so why not use these tips to help me come up with something to replace it?)

Whether you’re trying to solve a complex business problem or just come up with a new blog post idea, one of these tips is sure to help you out.

1. Switch up your environment.

In 2009, researchers found that being surrounded by the color blue while brainstorming prompted study participants to produce twice as many creative ideas as those surrounded by the color red. You may not have a say in your office’s decor, but you can still change up your surroundings to inspire more creative thinking. Donna Smallin Kuper explains how in her blog post How Changing Your Workspace Can Boost Creativity.

2. Use a thesaurus.

This is always the very first thing I do when I’m stumped. I write down a list of words related to the topic at hand, and then I plug each of them into The synonyms, tangentially related words, and even antonyms are often exactly what I need to see the topic in a new, inspiring light.

3. Think like a kid.

Last year we wrote about the magic of thinking like a kid, an idea popularized by the book Think Like a Freak. Childlike thinking, according to the authors, lets you “come up with better ideas and ask better questions.” Check out our blog post Thinking Like a Kid: A 3-Step Guide to Creative Problem Solving for fun steps we can all take to help us think more like kids and come up with innovative business solutions.

4. Brainstorm as two separate groups.

If you’re working on a problem with a team and traditional brainstorming isn’t yielding great results, try breaking off into two separate groups. Take notes as you brainstorm for a set period of time (try fifteen minutes). Then have the two teams swap notes and use the other group’s ideas as inspiration for another fifteen-minute brainstorming session.

5. Draw a mind map.

A mind map is a visual way to represent your thought processes. The MakeUseOf article 8 Free Mind Map Tools & How to Best Use Them is a great place to start if you’re new to the concept.

6. Seek a fresh perspective.

Seek help from someone who knows nothing about the topic you’re working on. Try crowdsourcing ideas from Facebook, asking your seven-year-old’s opinion, or picking your mom’s brain. You never know what the perspective of someone outside your industry bubble will bring to the table.

7. Come up with terrible ideas on purpose.

Brainstorm three horrible, over-the-top solutions to your problem — the more outlandish the better. Identify exactly what makes these ideas bad, and then strive for an idea with opposing traits. This exercise helps you focus on the characteristics your ideal solution needs, and it gives you a wonderfully weird perspective of your problem.

8. Be an idea hoarder.

My art teacher in elementary school once scolded me for ripping a page out of my sketchbook when I messed up an assignment. “Never throw away your mistakes,” she said. While I can’t say this is the best advice to live your entire life by, it can certainly help when it comes to creativity. Keep a notebook (physical or virtual is fine) of ideas, quotes, doodles — whatever inspires you or makes you think. And remember: never cross out or throw away your bad ideas. They’re perfect fodder for future inspiration.

9. Try it in Spanish.

Or Arabic, or Swedish, or Tagalog. Recent psycholinguistic research shows that “a second language can play an important unconscious role in framing perception,” explains Science Magazine. This means that if you’re multilingual, the language in which you solve a problem can actually influence the solution you find.

10. Get inspired by something unrelated.

Sometimes we need to take a break and look to some unusual sources for inspiration. I’m not suggesting you log off and dive into a Real Housewives marathon, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to spend a few minutes on something completely unrelated to your work. Here are a few websites that always manage to inspire me when I’m stuck in a creative rut.

  • Springwise – This self-proclaimed “innovation discovery engine” is chock-full of original ideas from around the globe.
  • Pinterest – I follow Pinterest boards featuring everything from marketing tips to mac and cheese recipes, and I would be lying if I said the former inspired more creative ideas than the latter.
  • Ideo – Ideo is a design firm, but that title doesn’t do it justice. Visit their site to see how they design original experiences and creative solutions to an unbelievable array of problems.
  • My Modern Met – This site boasts a solid combination of beautiful art and stuff your Farmville-loving auntie might share on Facebook — but to be honest, both are equally inspiring.

11. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

I tried to come up with a creative way to say this, but then I realized there’s no need to reinvent the saying either. Sometimes you don’t have to come up with the most creative solution to a problem. Best practices exist for a reason, and oftentimes it’s best to start with what’s proven to work.

Putting These Tips to Use

There are countless exercises that can help you brainstorm, solve problems, and think creatively. Whether you’re a visual learner, work well in groups, or prefer to multitask, there are plenty of different ways you can use those traits to your advantage. That being said, I have a challenge for you. Pick one of the ideas above that you think won’t work for you (I’m sure there’s at least one). Next time you’re faced with a difficult challenge, give that idea a try.

Sure, it might not work at all — but chances are you’ll still learn something new about your creative thinking process. Feel free to let me know how it goes by reaching out to me at @wardshn on Twitter. I’m looking forward to hearing your experiences and other tips for creative thinking.