The goal of idea generation, or brainstorming, is to come up with a variety of new approaches or solutions to an issue at hand. Whether done alone or in groups, idea generation is more productive when you follow a few guidelines and use a variety of simple techniques that encourage divergent thinking (suggesting many different options) and the deliberate mental processes of attention, escape (challenging an existing concept), and movement (generating ideas freely).
Four Classic Guidelines for Idea Generation
Alex Osborn, the developer of the brainstorming technique, suggests four basic guidelines for generating ideas:1
- Criticism is not allowed.
- Outlandish ideas are welcomed; the wilder the ideas, the better.
- The more ideas, the better.
- Building on and improving ideas is encouraged.
Three Techniques to Try
A variety of publications and websites describe methods and tools that, when used with the guidelines for idea generation, focus attention and further enhance escape and movement.2,3,4,5,6,7 Three techniques are summarized below:
- Breaking the rules
- The concepts fan
Technique #1: Breaking the Rules
There are two steps to this technique:
- List assumptions or other taken-for-granted aspects of the current situation that seem to have become the unwritten "rules" that govern your way of thinking.
- Temporarily escape these (e.g., pass a law against them, or imagine a different rule) and free-associate to generate novel ideas.
The Institute of Medicine’s design for the 21st century health care system is described as a transition from a set of current rules to a proposed new set.8 For example, the current unwritten rule, "care is based on visits," gives rise to a host of problems regarding access, appointment scheduling, and so on. If you imagined an alternative rule, such as "care is based on information exchange," you could almost immediately think of innovative approaches involving telephone, e-mail, videoconferencing, telemetry, or Internet technologies that might be effective. Some of these alternatives might be especially useful in providing access to care in rural areas.
Technique #2: Provocations
You can use a provocation to get your mind out of its regular thinking process. One approach is to suggest an outrageous scenario, but then use mental movement to seriously examine its implications (i.e., "What would we do if…?"). A common tactic involves removing structures or resources that are thought to be essential to the system.
The Commonwealth Fund employed this technique when it sponsored an effort to create an innovative vision of the future for well-child care.9 The foundation posted a scenario on a variety of Internet e-mail lists in which a strange disease had shut down all but one pediatric practice in New York City. Health care professionals generated 21 innovative ideas about how well-child care could be carried out, e.g., in schools, via television broadcasts, using Web-based tools, and through better parent education. Some of these approaches might be especially useful in addressing the needs of ethnically diverse or disadvantaged populations.
Technique #3: The Concept Fan
In this technique, you would first construct a high-level flowchart describing the steps of an existing process and then identify the concepts underlying each step, recognizing that some steps may have multiple concepts. Finally, generate alternative ways to achieve each of the underlying concepts.
Clinicians at a large health maintenance organization in Minneapolis used this technique to explore ways to improve access, flow, and quality of care. Starting with a flowchart of a typical clinic visit, they identified one step as "Check In."4 The underlying concept behind this step was the need to recognize the patient’s presence. Improvement groups then identified a variety of alternative ways to do this. For instance, one idea was to provide patients with cards they could scan through a reader for entrance into the parking lot. This entry of information could generate a look-up in the appointments database that sends notification and a picture of the patient to the appropriate clinic. Clinic staff could begin preparing the patient's record, greet the patient by name, and immediately place the patient in an examining room upon arrival.
1 Osborn A. Applied imagination. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons; 1953.
2 Higgins JM. 101 creative problem solving techniques. Winter Park, FL: New Management Publishing Company; 1994.
3 Plsek PE. Creativity, innovation and quality. Milwaukee: ASQ Quality Press; 1997.
Plsek PE. Innovative thinking for the improvement of medical systems. Ann Intern Med. 1999 131(6):438-44. [PubMed]
5 Kelly T, Littman J. The art of innovation. New York, NY: Doubleday; 2001.
6 Frey C. Free creative thinking tools on the web. Innovation Tools [Web site]. September 21, 2004. Available at: http://www.innovationtools.com/Articles/ArticleDetails.asp?a=155
7 Michalko M. Thinkpak: a brainstorming card deck. Revised ed. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press; 2006.
8 Committee on Quality Health Care in America, Institute of Medicine. Crossing the quality chasm: a new health care system for the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2001.