If all you need is a run of the mill idea, then brainstorming or some other diverge-converge idea generation method will do the job. Such methods rely on recall, word association, analogy, repurposing, and synthetic imagination (also known as combinatorial creativity), where existing ideas are combined to form a new one.
Synthetic Imagination Through this faculty, one may arrange old concepts, ideas, or plans into new combinations. This faculty creates nothing. It merely works with the material of experience, education, and observation with which it is fed. It is the faculty used most by the inventor, with the exception of he who draws upon the creative imagination, when he cannot solve his problem through synthetic imagination.
Ideas produced in this way may eventually yield some degree of value, but their value generation potential is likely to be limited.
In a brainstorm the default method of finding ideas is by free association. The group having been given the problem or challenge statement, seek ideas in a spontaneous, accidental fashion through internal ‘semantic networks’ of association connecting the challenge to other words, phrases, concepts and experiences they can recall from memory.
Kevin Byron, Creative reflections on brainstorming, London Review of Education, Vol. 10, No. 2, July 2012, 201–213
When you need a breakthrough idea — one that is potent (displaying the potential to generate extensive or exceptional value) and fitting (the key fits the lock) — the answer is unlikely to reside inside you, waiting to be unearthed. Instead of working outwards from your inner world, you must start in the outside world and work inwards.
This means immersing yourself in the demands and dynamics of the project (either through Readiness work or by other means), activating creative imagination and foreseeing a possibility for enriching the world, or a particular piece of it, with value, meaning and joy.
The imagined scenario is represented as a vision of realised potential. This is a depiction — an actual picture accompanied by a vivid and compelling synopsis — of how the world will look, sound and feel when the new creation exists in its finished state (even though you do not yet know what form it will take) and its value generation potential is being realised without constraint.
Work carried out up to this point should be sufficient for you and your fellow team members to summon from your imagination a potent idea for a new creation (product, service, enterprise, establishment, theatrical production etc.) possessing the potential to generate the imagined value, meaning and joy for customers or users and other beneficiaries.
The idea may appear as a mental image, rough sketch, 3D model, symbol or some other non-verbal form.
The team’s ideas are captured, discussed and enhanced by means of the concept sheet method.
The Newcreate Idea-to-Concept Method
Some will recognise this as an elaboration of the 1-2-4-All method that forms part of the Liberating Structures collection. I discovered it in the early 1990s, some 10 years before Liberating Structures came into being, and used it extensively in my work as an innovation and change consultant. The originator of the method is unknown.
A single breakthrough idea is sought: the key that fits the lock.
- One facilitator.
- Minimum of four participants. Upper limit is determined by venue capacity.
- Maximum diversity among participant body.
For the purposes of this explainer, we will work on the basis that there are 16 participants and four tables, each accommodating four participants.
If necessary, this can be increased to eight per table with the two groups of four working independently before pooling their outputs. In such cases, a volunteer spokesperson speaks on behalf of both groups, thereby halving the number of report-outs
Each participant is provided with one or more (depending on the detailed process adopted) Idea-to-Concept Worksheets, something like the one appearing below.
The aspect ratio of this image is consistent with paper sizes in the A series: A3. A4 etc. | Save image
People form pairs. They take it in turns to explain their concept, with the other person asking questions of clarification. The pairs discuss potential benefits and associated beneficiaries, air any immediately apparent issues (flaws, gaps, obstacles etc.) and suggest ways in which these might be tackled.
The two concepts are merged. If one is considered superior (more potent and more fitting), the other is set aside.
The two pairs come together. Each pair presents their merged concept to the other pair. The two concepts are then merged, or one is set aside.
A volunteer spokesperson presents their table’s concept to the overall group.
The facilitator works with the 16 participants to merge the four concepts (one per table) into a single concept that is both potent and fitting.
Why this method is preferable to brainstorming and its derivatives
- It recognises that an idea is conceived in the imagination of an individual, not in some fanciful group mind.
- Creative imagination and synthetic imagination are integrated.
- All three create-the-new work modes are put into action: creating alone, creating together, and helping others create.
- The Idea-to-Concept Worksheet enables the intangible idea to be made tangible.
- Ideas are discussed and enhanced, and ways of addressing shortcomings are explored. In this way, the raw idea becomes an embryonic concept.
- The Max4 Principle (four is the maximum group size for a proper conversation) is honoured.
- The needs of introverts, autistic people, other neurodivergent members of society and the socially anxious are accommodated.
- A single concept emerges: one that is potent and fits the lock.
Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.
John Steinbeck, cited by Roger S Bacon in The Myth of the Myth of the Lone Genius
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