Ideas are the raw materials you will use to build your plan.  So it is important to generate enough.  In the beginning it is more important to have a large volume of ideas than to have just the right one.  Having a multitude of ideas will allow you to hone in on the right ones.

What blocks the flow of ideas?

The most common blocker is the fear of expressing a bad or foolish idea.  This is especially powerful in a group.  Nobody wants to appear foolish.  Second, impatience blocks the flow of ideas.  If we want all the ideas to be good and immediately useful we will be self-editing our thoughts before they have a chance to get out.  A third blocker that is related to impatience is the pressure to produce; the pressure to have a finished plan.  Fourth, looking at this process as work or as too important can keep the ideas from flowing.  Relax.  Have fun.  Follow the process and the plan will develop.  And finally, assumptions are real idea blockers.  They keep our thoughts in pre-defined channels.  For most of life and work this is a great and useful thing—but when we are trying to think of something new or generate new ideas assumptions narrow our possibilities.

One antidote that works to neutralize a number of these idea blockers is to set aside a section of time where you will be free to brainstorm.  Set a timer if you need to—this often works well with a group—and forget about how much time it is taking.  Planning well takes time.  Make it your goal to produce as many ideas (good, bad, and ugly) as possible in the allotted time.  Another antidote is to set some ground rules.

Set the ground rules ahead of time

Defining the basic standards of procedure and behavior for brainstorming is important whether you are working in a group or working alone.  The first rule is to suspend judgment.  There are no bad ideas.  In another step you will look at whether or not the ideas you have gathered are suitable for your particular project—but that will come later.  Remember to work smarter by doing the right things at the right time.  And now is not the time for judging ideas.

This leads to a second rule: no one is to use negative words or exhibit a negative action during this process.  What are negative words and actions?  Any form of look, utterance, or body posture that communicates that the idea just expressed is a bad one.  You can’t say, “That won’t work,” or laugh, or even role your eyes.  One technique I have used in groups is to have a very soft ball sitting on the table.  If anyone around the table thinks that another has used negative words they are free to toss the ball at the offender.  Usually this keeps the correction on the lighter fun side and everyone takes a part in enforcing the ground rule.  Remember, though, it’s just as important to enforce this rule with your own self-talk when you are working alone.

And the third ground rule is to check your assumptions at the door.  Since assumptions can guide your thoughts, keeping them in established channels, this is important.

Use these secrets to increase the flow of ideas.

Even though you have set the ground rules ideas may still be slow in coming.  What you need is a way to get the creative juices flowing.  One important technique is to “bounce the idea off of something.”  You can bounce it off something in the room, words in the dictionary, pictures in a magazine, famous people, or even other ideas that are already on the table.  The goal is to create a link between the idea that you are working on and the thing you are bouncing it off of in order to stimulate new ideas.

One time I was working with some youth leaders planning an event.  We wanted it to be big.  So we were “bouncing” the need for good promotion off of things in the room.  When we bounced it off the lights someone came up with the idea of a neon sign.  We tried a number of other things and then I suggested bouncing the idea off of my head.

Somebody said, “We can shave the youth pastor’s head.”

Not a great idea in itself, but someone else added, “Let’s tell the kids that if they bring enough friends so that we have over one hundred youth for this event then the youth pastor will shave his head.”

And a third person added, “And we’ll do it that night at the event.”

We ran with that idea (with the youth pastor’s permission) and had a great turnout.  As promised, the youth pastor’s head was shaved as the final element of the night.

Another trick is contained in this example: the trick of spinning ideas into richer ones.  Sometimes we have an idea that is not great in itself, but if we spin it, or build on it we can often come up with a great idea.  (That’s why there are no bad ideas—any idea can be the fodder for spinning.)

Here is a third technique.  You can “five sense” your ideas.  In other words, as you are trying to develop ideas pick a thought or area of the plan that seems promising.  Then think, “What would this taste like if it were a great idea?  What would it smell like?  Feel like?  Look like?  Sound like?”

One of the great things about working with a group is that your brainstorming ideas can feed off of each other (we saw that in the illustration above, too).  If you are not working with a group consider gathering a few coworkers or interested friends to help you with the brainstorming part.  As long as they know why you’ve asked for their help and understand the ground rules for brainstorming they can be a great resource.

Remember the Goal

Remember, the goal is to get lots of ideas—some will be good, some will be bad.  But even the bad ideas can be useful.  So, crank out those ideas!  Of course, you will need to record those ideas some way; get them written down.  And we will cover that in the next installment, Don’t Let Valuable Ideas Escape.

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts, How to Plan a Project with Ease.

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