How to Have Ideas: Thinking Skills & Techniques for Brainstorming

When I began to speak and write about what it is to be creative I begin to research and read extensively on the subject, particularly about how the brain functions and thinking skills. What I learnt was that thinking skills and creativity can be worked like a muscle and intelligence is not directly related to either.

Being a creative type I have always found it difficult to explain my thought process as it is something that happens subconsciously. I just ‘have’ ideas, most of the time I don’t really feel like I control it. It’s only when I can’t have ideas that I pay it any attention.

When I began to speak and write about what it is to be creative I begin to research and read extensively on the subject, particularly about how the brain functions and thinking skills. What I learnt was that thinking skills and creativity can be worked like a muscle and intelligence is not directly related to either.

I discovered three key authors on the subject. Firstly James Webb Young who wrote a small book that succinctly describes the technique of thinking (if you read anything, read this, the best investment of an hour you can make). Edward de Bono who is considered to be the world expert on thinking skills, and Donald W. MacKinnon who conducted extensive research on the subject and an expert on creativity.

The thing about thinking is that no one thinks too much about thinking.

When do you ever take the time to think about why you think and how it works?

The meteoric rise of content marketing online has seen websites furiously producing content with little consideration for what or why. Not many people have considered that content marketing has been around for over 100 years. ‘Content is king’ became the new buzzword thrown around and the bulk of content produced is just pulp and website filler.

The foundation of content should be a strong concept. A piece of content can look good but without substance it will struggle to gain audience connection. For me ‘concept is king’. If you have a strong concept, a story or a clear message then you cannot fail.

Content is growing at an exponential rate online. Only a few years ago an infographic would be shared widely on its basis of novelty factor; now only the creative and innovative ideas can gain attention and traction.

If you take only one thing away that should be: learning basic thinking skills can drastically improve creativity and ideas generation and in turn will benefit your content production.

The thinking process can be summarised to: Input – Process – Output

how to have ideas input output


The classic computing term of GIGO stands for garbage in, garbage out. What you feed your brain will affect the results that your brain outputs.

There is no other form of training that can improve the quality of your idea generation than feeding your brain by reading. Regular input from a varied list of books, magazines and articles will stimulate ideas by offering ingredients for your brain to process.

Reading widely gives me a diverse range of input that I can use to inform content ideas.

I sign up to newsletters from trusted sources so I get a steady stream of content every day in my inbox.

I use Feedly to organise and to allow me to consume a huge amount of content. It’s a full time job in itself keeping on top of the input and reading; being creative is a commitment.

I use my reading as a source of inspiration and new ideas.

The creative person wants to be a know it all, he wants to know about all kinds of things. He never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or in six years, but the creative person has faith it will happen.” Carl Ally, NYC advertiser.

How to have ideas - idea magpie


Being an ideas magpie

Reading widely around the theme of your interest should also be supplemented with classic texts and alternative topics to challenge the input to your brain and avoid becoming engrained in a theme rut. Great creativity comes from connecting the most random of subjects and combining ideas. You have to become an ideas magpie and constantly be feeding your brain snippets of trivia and information so that at some point in the future those random bites of idea can form to create a new idea.

I have always been a big ‘scrap booker’ and kept vast files of visual ephemera for referring back to when I need inspiring. If you watch any of the excellent documentaries about Paul Smith you can see how his office is filled like a second hand store. Paul constantly collects items and takes photographs to keep feeding his mind those precious snippets of input that he can later draw on to make his connections.

To keep up with my itinerant lifestyle and to save space I now use more online tools to save images – Pinterest being one of my favourites. It’s a creative persons dream where I can collect and find everything that I need to refer back to without fear of it being lost, burnt down or having to drag it from house move to house move.

Always be looking for inspiration, even in the mundane, try varied experiences such as galleries, museums, cultural events, even retro shops, flea markets and second hand book shops. You really do get out what you put in.

You can find inspiration is everything. If you can’t then you’re not looking properly.” Paul Smith

Once you have collated your research using an ideas wall (explained later) will help you to look for the connections and find unique combinations for your content ideas.

how to have ideas pattern matching


Pattern matching

In very basic terms of how the brain functions: The mind is a pattern making system.

A pattern represents a repeatable sequence of neural activity. The mind is constantly looking for pattern matches in its one-way communication with the external environment. Our ability to pattern match is essential for functional living. It enables us to speak, read, write, drive, select ‘safe’ food to eat. Etc.

The limitation of a pattern making system is that the brain stops looking for a solution as soon as it recognises a fit.

Stopping looking for solutions after a pattern match has been found limits innovation and creativity as we continue to operate within the same thinking and patterns.

Imagine two hawks: both live on a diet restricted to frogs and mice. One hawk has superior eyesight and can identify its prey with accuracy. The other hawk is short sighted and therefore selects its pretty by associating anything of the same size and shape being a frog or a mouse; drastically widening the availability of prey.
Which hawk is going to survive if suddenly frogs and mice are in short supply?

By broadening our perceptions and breaking patterns we can be open to new solutions and ideas.

Western critical thinking

Thinking skills are generally not taught in western education. The standard format of thinking process: analysis, judgement and argument is the standard Socratic method developed at an early age through the school system. The ‘critical’ and ‘logical’ style of thinking is highly suited to academic learning and has it’s place but to progress and innovate a different approach is essential or we risk regurgitating the same ideas and being stuck in our own loop of perception and defence.

Critical destruction of one hypothesis has never produced a better one. It is creativity that produces better hypothesis.” Edward de Bono

Imagine a group of intelligent critical academics: one academic makes a suggestion, all the others criticise and it gets rejected; this could carry on for infinity with nothing being achieved (and is a reflection of political debate).

We could call the limitations of our intelligence the intelligence trap.

The intelligence trap

Intelligence does not equal thinking skills or creativity.

Level of intelligence has no influence on quality of thinking skills. Anyone can own a powerful car but if they can’t drive the machine skilfully then they don’t achieve the maximum performance out of it.

Intelligence is like the horse power of a car… The performance of a car does not depend upon the horsepower of a car but upon the skill with which the car is driven by the driver. Intelligence is a potential. Thinking is an operational skill.” Edward de Bono

Highly intelligent people have opinions and then use their intelligence to defend that view. By taking a critical stance of judgements and opinions based on their perceptions their ability to problem solve, seek alternatives and creative ideas is greatly limited.

Many highly intelligent minds are trapped in poor ideas because they can defend them so well.” EDB

Lateral thinking

Traditional vertical thinking, as we learn in education, is methodical, sequential and logical. The fundamental flaw is that each stage must be justified; it’s selective of ideas and stops when it reaches the first promising solution. This being it’s major limitation to creative thinking.

Lateral thinking, however, is non selective, generates as many ideas as possible and continues after the first solution is found, which opens it up to new solutions and ideas.

Lateral thinking can generate innovative and creative ideas by interrupting preconception and breaking ingrained mind patterns.

In summary, lateral thinking is about removing all preconception and previously held beliefs and being prepared to work with ideas that at first appear wrong, jumping randomly between thoughts. Traditional thinking has to be right at every stage of the process and this again is an inherent flaw, which limits the potential of creativity.

Lateral thinking breaks down old patterns in order to liberate information. Lateral thinking stimulates new pattern formation by juxtaposing unlikely information.” Edward de Bono

You can download a PDF copy of How to Have Ideas here

Techniques for lateral thinking

Lateral thinking is about challenging assumptions and pre-existing preconceptions so we want to find ways to break existing patterns of thinking to jump-start the idea process.

The following exercises can help:

Reverse information and reject the obvious

Break the natural pattern of order by reversing the ‘usual’ order of looking at a situation.

Imagine a container of water that is too heavy to move and the water level is too low to reach. How do you take the water out of the container to drink?
Reverse thinking: add something to the jug instead of taking away and the solution is to add pebbles to raise the level of water so it overflows.

Imagine a fighter jet that needs to refuel on a mission. Instead of taking the jet to the fuel pump, the fuel pump is taken to the jet and it refuels in mid-air.

Imagine a TV station that broadcasts programmes on a set schedule at set times in a controlled manner. Reverse the thinking and a viewer controls the schedules and the viewing times: video on demand viewing such as Netflix.

Oppose elements

Another pattern-breaking technique is to take two random and opposing items and connect them (a classic technique for humour); for example, a fish riding a bicycle, a ballet-dancing hippo, a toad singing opera.


No other technique is more accessible and effective for idea generation than brainstorming.
The synergy from more than one person brings fresh perspective, new ideas and energy for content ideas. But, how do you conduct a brainstorming session to get the best out of it?

One of the most important elements within team idea generation is trust and harmony. Judgement, criticism and condescension will suppress the confidence to speak freely and share ideas. Any disagreeable personalities, critical individuals or large egos are not conducive to successful creative brainstorming and should be excluded from the group.

I want to consider two alternative forms of brainstorming:

Six Thinking Hats (Edward de Bono)

This technique uses a process of wearing different ‘hats’ to enable a problem to be addressed from many dimensions.

All the hats can be used in sequence in one session for a comprehensive ideas session. Or any individual hat can be used to generate a specific and different view in just one session.

White hat: Information, the input and gathering of facts

Example questions:

Who is the target demographic?
Where is the content to be placed?
Who will we outreach to?
When is the deadline?
What is the current season?
What is the budget?

Red hat: Emotions, expressing feelings and intuition without justification or judgement

Example questions:

I feel we should
My gut tells me
I like this/I don’t like this

Black hat: risk assessment critical thinking

Example questions:

What are the selling perimeters?
What would alienate our demographic?
What would be too much of a risk?

Yellow hat: positive logical, how an idea can be put into action

Example questions:

How do we plan production?
Where can we get placements?
Who can we use to illustrate/write/code?

Green hat: Creative, alternatives, new ideas, possibilities

Example questions:

Let the creative ideas run free
What if?
Can we?
This is different…

Blue hat: Defining the problem and what is being thought about

Example questions:

How do we get more placements?
How do we generate the most traffic in the budget?
How do we produce the best piece of content within our limited budget?

Another brainstorming method is the Why technique.

5 Whys

A thinking technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used by the Toyota motor company.
The aim of 5 Whys is to get to the root cause of a problem by continually asking why. Five ‘whys’ is considered the number of iterations required to reach the root.

As the system was developed by a manufacturer this technique is systems and process focused. The aim of the final ‘why’ is to uncover a process and not just a reason that is out of our control, such as not enough time or not enough budget.

Imagine we have a laptop that isn’t working.

  1. Why? The laptop screen is blank
  2. Why? The laptop is turned off
  3. Why? The laptop battery is dead
  4. Why? The laptop battery needs replacing
  5. Why? The laptop was not maintained and serviced even when the battery was known to be failing (this is the root cause)

how to have ideas the why technique

The ‘why’ technique

A thinking skill outlined by Edward de Bono that can help in the lateral thinking process.
To help move you past all of the musts, shoulds, have tos, whats, hows and I don’t knows. Removing all of your existing preconceptions. It’s ideal for breaking through mental blocks.

Try to think like a child and, without any self-consciousness, always ask why?

A minimum of two people is needed: one to be the teacher answering questions and any number of others to be the students asking “Why?”

The foundation of the ‘Why’ technique is to challenge preconception through discomfort and provocation challenging the brain to break patterns and seek alternatives.

Start with an element of your problem that you already know the answer to:

Student: “Why are mobile phones flat and oblong?
Teacher: “They are flat to save space.”

Focus on a part of the previous explanation.

Student: “Why do they need to be small and save space?
Teacher: “So that they can fit in our pocket.

Keep the flow and keep moving forward (avoid circling back to the beginning):

Student: “Why do we need to keep phones in our pocket?
Teacher: “It’s convenient, and we can carry them around more easily.

Generate discomfort through provocation (this is where new ideas will break through).

Student: “But why does the phone have to be convenient?
Teacher: “To make our lives easier by having less to carry around.
Student: “But why do we want to carry less around?

Alternatives and solutions can be offered at any point:

Teacher: “If we had a small watch on our wrist that we could speak commands to and that fed back to a ‘base station’ at home or the office, then we could combine a phone and a laptop and have to carry neither, only a watch.”

The roles can be reversed at any point, again to create discomfort and provocation:

Student: “Why would we want to combine a laptop with a mobile phone?
Teacher: “I don’t know. Why do you think combining a laptop and a phone would be a good idea?

Keep asking Why?

Look for connections:

The secret to creativity and idea generation is finding connections and combining random elements to make new ideas. There are no new ideas, in our information soaked world it’s near impossible to say or do anything that hasn’t been said or done before. New ideas come from bringing two old ideas together.

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” James Webb Young

One of my favourite idea combinations is the invention of the camera phone.

The very first mobile phone to contain a camera was produced by Sharp in 2000 for the brand J-Phone. Twenty years ago who could ever have imagined a phone and a camera combined? As a teenager mobile phones didn’t even exist (except as huge bricks that only wealthy city traders could afford). We had to rely on making arrangements in advance and one fixed rotary telephone in the house – we didn’t even have the luxury of a cordless phone!

Who can imagine not having a camera and a phone in your pocket 24/7 in this day?

Combining a camera with a phone has revolutionised how we take and share photographs; even how we perceive them as such disposable items. Once upon a day, having your photograph taken was a major life event. Social media such as Instagram, Flickr, Snapchat or even Facebook couldn’t exist without a camera phone. On the flip side, we have become very quick to share our most private moments. Probably too quick, judging by much of what I see on Facebook.

An ideas wall

I am a huge advocate for using wall space to externalise and keep track of work-in-progress and research. For every project I undertake I print and paste sketches, plans and documents on the wall to keep organised, focused and project manage. An ideas wall is a means of grouping research material for idea generation and problem solving.

The only requirement is a large blank wall with space to fix all reference material, notes, scribbles and images to the wall. Material should be grouped together and can be colour coded to make visual digestion easier. Pushpins and coloured string can be used to highlight connections.

By grouping related themes, we start to see patterns. If you have a piece that doesn’t fit into a group, this ‘outlier’ could in itself give ideas. The string connections will help your brain in the digestion process by visually linking together random information.

For example, if you’re working on content strategy for your site, we could arrange the groups as so:

  • Keywords – brainstorm a list of keywords surrounding your brand, niche, theme or anything seasonal. You can include keyword research, but not limited to.
  • Influencers – list influencers who could help to broadcast your content and sub-group in different social media channels, newsletters and authority sites (e.g. Guardian, Huffington Post, Fast Company).
  • Idea sources – places to mine ideas from mentioned earlier in research: hashtags, Quora, Google trends
  • Host – potential sites to target for exposure, shares and links such as authority hub sites, bloggers, online magazines/publishers, email newsletters and social media sites.
  • Emotion – collect visual reference, ideas, techniques, trends and anything you like, just because.

Stand back from the wall and look for potential relationships or connections between the information. Simply standing and looking at your information contained in the ideas wall will allow your mind to make connections between seemingly random elements.

hw to have ideas distraction


Digest and distract

Once research has been conducted and all reference material collected it is time to allow the brain to contemplate, digest and meditate. This is the hardest part of the process to explain, as it can’t be taught. It’s about letting go and allowing the subconscious to take over. Trusting that your brain will throw out an idea.

Although we feel we have no control over this stage of the thinking process there is scientific research to indicate that the best environments in which to incubate creativity are:

  • When we are in touch with our emotional responses,
  • When dopamine is being released,
  • When we are relaxed,
  • When we are distracted from routine.

Take a walk away from the office, go to the gym or take your laptop to the coffee shop
Breaking out of our normal routine or any activity where we are relaxed, yet focused on a mundane function and not thinking is our sweet spot for ideas.

It’s no cliché that people have ideas in the shower, driving is also being a popular productive time . A good friend would have her best ideas when she took a toilet break. Something about letting go!

I find that ideas flow out of me when I am walking on the hills or usually just as I am about to fall asleep. I have to make great effort to turn the light on and make a note or guaranteed when I wake up, it’s gone. A good habit to have is to always carry a notebook – or make notes on your phone.

Be prepared – ideas come at any time – don’t lose them

Feedback and scrutiny

The final stage is to test and review your idea. Get feedback, ideally from your target audience.

An idea that has not been shared or tested is merely a thought and is no more useful than a thought of what you will have for dinner.

Put yourself out there, and put your idea into action.


  • Anyone can learn thinking skills
  • Intelligence does not equal thinking skills
  • Input + Process = Output
  • Look for connections
  • Combine two old ideas to make a new idea
  • Break your usual routine to get creative

Books to read: