Rodin thinker

5 categories and techniques for being creative and generating ideas

5 categories and techniques for being creative and generating ideas 780 441 nMerge

I am a bit of a deep thinker who sometimes feels quite paradoxical. In fact my parents bought me a bronze statue of Rodin’s, The Thinker a few years ago in recognition of my predilection for thinking. For those who have undertaken Myers Briggs testing, my profile is INFJ. This means I am a relatively Introverted, iNtuitive person who Feels their way through situations based on my personal values and I tend to Judge early based on instinct. I had this test a couple of years ago and although these things are imperfect it helped clarify a few things in my personal interest on creative thinking, ideation and strategy. I have collected many different resources, categories and techniques for being creative and generating ideas over the years and want to share a few with you today. First I will discuss a little of why I write this, then offer some foundations and types of thinking before moving to the categories and techniques.

A little on my background

As an 18 year old, I pursued graphic arts studying and practicing design. I was a good painter, illustrator and sculptor, finishing in the top 5% of NSW for HSC visual art so this seemed like a natural environment to develop a career. However over the years I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was an internal struggle between the intuitive, creative side of me and my rational and logical side. As a result, I gravitated towards technology in creative and marketing disciplines. First it started with web development, then IT business development and more recently marketing and technology consulting. This internal dialogue on ‘self’ meant I became intrigued by how people think. It also led me to develop a capability, tool kit and library on creativity and generating ideas. This can roughly be framed using divergent (opening), exploring (emerging) and convergent (closing) thinking.

Why I write this today

The other circumstance that also made me consider writing about this topic was an situation that occurred a number of years ago, on a consulting engagement. In this project, an enterprise sponsor criticised a consultant from a top tier management-consulting firm for being process centric. Basically what they were asserting is the consultant lacked creativity and just followed a process enabled by analysis. I was stunned because I was intrigued by the consultant’s application of ‘structure’ and ‘systems.’ In short what the sponsor was criticising was the consultant’s ability to think outside the square rather than follow a process.

More recently I am sure people reading this have heard the phrase ‘design thinking’ or the ability to approach a business opportunity or problem like a ‘traditional’ designer. Or as Tim Brown of IDEO states, “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” In the last few years I have heard a number of executives express frustration at various ‘design thinking’ courses and consultants etc. Basically what they are saying is that design thinking is another buzzword. I obviously do not agree with this assertion, particularly due to my heritage in design and creativity. However I understand there are differences in the way people think that make this complex territory. This is obviously where group formation and dynamics are incredibly important to understand so you can get the most out of differences in innate and method based thinking practices.

Some foundations

More often than not what I have discovered over the last 20 years was, in general, people think via process and structure. Remove that structure and process and people can become lost. To delve a little deeper I found a 3 dimensional representation of strategic thinking (see below) by Bernard Boar that resonated.This diagram was supposed to represent strategic thinking. Boar’s thesis indicates a majority of people’s thinking follows a pattern that is binary as either/or focused on the present, quite concrete and only able to consider one or two issues. The counter point, is a person who can think in the context of past, present and future whilst holding a number of concurrent issues in perspective whilst linking abstract concepts to concrete situations and actions. In my experience these people are very unusual. I think part of this is the ability to think creatively to come up with unique solutions considerate of micro and macro circumstances that promotes change.

strategic thought

Source: Strategic Thinking Bubble – Bernard Boar

Change is quite relevant to this topic as Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s research in their book, Immunity to Change illustrates. They argue that even though people may ‘want’ to change they often intrinsically resist it. They present two diagrams (see below) to present various stages of adult mental development where over time a person’s capacity for thinking matures, but most stall at the lower end and may oscillate between lower layers as the person matures. They present that 93% of people operate in the lower stages of adult mental complexity with only 7% of people studied having ‘self-transforming’ mental capacity that is capable of being adaptive to change. This is their crux and is founded on Ronald Heifetz’s research where he explains that leaders make the biggest mistakes when they apply technical means (i.e. process, rote thinking) to adaptive challenges (i.e. where complexity demands creativity, willingness to experiment and to change). Kegan and Laskow-Lahey illustrate that in a world where change is becoming a constant, we need to develop the capacity to develop our mental complexity and ‘at least move up to ‘self-authoring mind.’

Three plateaus of adult mental development

adult mental complexity

Source: Kegan & Laskow Lahey

Tiers of Adult Mental Complexity

3plateausofadultmentalcomplexityStats

Source: Kegan & Laskow Lahey

They argue that this knowledge doesn’t diminish our capacity to change but enables us to use tools to help us overcome cognitive blocks. This is where creative techniques come in to help us be more aware of ‘self’ so that creativity and ideation can be unlocked. We live in a world of increasing complexity and change where the old structures and processes are being disrupted. This is only going to accelerate. So it will become the norm for people to feel lost or to just do things the way the used to. Slowly marching off the cliff as the dynamics around them change and accelerate. Therefore we need to develop capabilities in creative thinking that can be logically applied to provide structure for those that need it. Without it, the ability to be agile, responsive and customer orientated to a ‘market of one’ where competitive advantage can be fleeting becomes an experience of diminishing returns.

Types of thinking and their relationship to strategic paradoxes

First let’s establish that there are a few types of thinking that will help us better understand the topic. What you will find is that in many cases we operate in a relatively binary world however the pace of change requires the ability to quickly move from option ‘a’ to ‘b’ to ‘z’ and vice versa, inside out etc if needed.

  • Binary thought logical either/or argument: is a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning. Binary opposition is the system by which, in language and thought, two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another.
  • Dialectic thought of and/also: is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments.
  • Circular thought of not-only-but-also: is a logical fallacy in which the reasoner begins with what they are trying to end with.

Following on from this I developed a quick list of strategic paradoxes. This will help us frame some approaches to opportunities or problems. What you will notice is that the below examples of paradoxical thinking is presented as binary examples.

It is presented this way because it is the simplest way to present opposing non-inclusive views. The next section will provide an overview of the 5 categories and techniques for being creative and generating ideas.

5 categories and techniques for being creative and generating ideas

I have classified the techniques into 5 groups including; frameworks and analysis, roles, questions and points of view, diagramming and visualisation and standing on the shoulders of giants. I could write about each one however you should be able to do a quick desktop search on each and find a how to. These techniques should be considered in the context of divergent (opening) and convergent (closing) thinking. Using an example of dialectic thought we can extend this to opening (divergent), exploring (emergent) and closing (convergent). It is generally considered best practice not to open and close in the same instance but to phase the techniques. This is because as previously indicated the adult mind struggles to consider multiple roles, contexts and situations.

1.0 Frameworks & analysis 2.0 Roles 3.0 Questions & Points of View 4.0 Diagramming & Visualization 5.0 Standing on the shoulders of giants
  • Double diamond
  • Force field analysis
  • Stakeholder analysis
  • SWOT analysis
  • NUF test (New, Useful, Feasible)
  • PESTEL/CDN analysis
  • MoSCoW Prioritisation
  • RACI Matrix
  • Fishbone
  • Decision tree analysis
  • Value chain mapping
  • Impact & effort matrix
  • Idea grid
  • Driving forces analysis
  • Belbin (not a role per se but a classification system)
  • 6 thinking hats
  • Plus/delta
  • Improvisation
  • Body storming
  • Play-write/story telling
  • The blind side (similar to JOHARI)
  • Ethos, Logos, Pathos
  • Scenario theatre
  • 5 whys
  • Devils advocate
  • Hypothesis generation
  •  Anti-problem – solve the opposite
  • Customer, Employee, Shareholder views
  • History map
  • Brainstorming
  • Trade offs – give and take matrix
  • Heuristic Ideation
  • Persona’s
  • Elevator pitch
  • SCAMPER (Substitute, Adapt, Modify/ Magnify, Put it to another use)
  • Mind mapping
  • Lean/Minimum Viable Product/Rapid prototyping
  • Post up
  • Context map
  • Affinity map
  • Draw the problem
  • Business model canvas
  • Visual glossary
  • Spectrum mapping
  • Customer journey mapping
  • Customer experience mapping
  • Customer empathy map
  • Mood board
  • Benefits mapping
  • Borrowing brilliance
  • Nature as a source
  • Relax, exercise and eat well
  • Hold the moment.

Wrapping it up

This is not an exhaustive list and there are many, many more. However if I were you I would design the use of these based on the context, the desired outcome, the participants and the problem you are trying to solve or opportunity you are attempting to address. I cannot stress enough the last category, standing on the shoulders of giants. What I mean here is look to nature, look to ideas, products, and services in other industries. Approach with the question “what if?” at top of mind. Find your muse and relax, get out and exercise. Ideas and random connections may grab you at the most unusual times. Finally hold the moment. One of the greatest pieces of advice I received from an expert in the field of leadership development was, “the moment you feel like you want to act or say something in a group session, hold the moment, lean in to it and explore before judging. It is hard for an INFJ but is something I try to do every day.


Richard Sharp is Managing Director of nMerge Pty Ltd providing consulting, systems and services to Australian companies as well as partnering with marketing and sales technology vendors and thought leaders in Europe and Silicon Valley, USA. His obsession is helping companies solve problems at the intersection of the customer centric application of technology, marketing and sales programs.

Richard holds an MBA, Master of Information Systems Management, Diploma of Applied Arts (Graphic Design) and certifications in PRINCE2, and Agile DSDM.

Richard can be contacted on:
E: richard.sharp@nmerge.com
M: 0415 112 846

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