How to overcome ideation block

Innovation-forward companies have one thing in common: they’re all chasing cutting-edge creative thinking. Who doesn’t want to be the creator of the “next big idea”? Thinking outside of the box, doing something no one else has done before, or expanding an idea to unchartered territory can is not only a proven and highly lucrative business strategy, it’s fun as hell and super exhilarating 

Getting unstuck and finding inspirations when there just seems to be none to be found is no small feat. There are numerous tried-and-true frameworks and methods to amplify your ideation process and develop your idea further, faster. A few of our favorite ways to flush out new ideas quickly are utilizing lateral thinking exercises like storytelling and pre-mortem to unlock fresh ideas, running a Design Sprint, and implementing design thinking processes in our everyday meetings. These methods are proven highly effective ways to align your team and quickly move through a design-based thinking process to uncover insights, prototype an idea, and test it with users. A system for flushing out an idea quickly is great, but what if you’re having trouble coming up with the idea itself? 

Pro-tip: We created a tool that lets you dive into some of these suggested frameworks and methods. Check it out.

Sparking New Ideas

spark new ideas

Whether you are still searching for the idea that will become your big break or you’re thinking about how to top a company project that just launched, we’ve all experienced the nag of worry about falling short on good ideas. While we can try to force good ideas to surface, that’s unfortunately not the nature of creativity; it strikes on its own time. We may sit down to generate ideas and nothing surfaces. The think tank is empty. Similar to writer’s block, sometimes creativity just doesn’t come when we want it to, and then we feel stuck. But staying “stuck” gets us nowhere; we must move forward. The question is how.

As I was sitting down to write this blog post, I recalled my conversation with Paul Sloane, a professional speaker and lateral thinking expert, about the power of lateral thinking to overcome stagnation and accelerate innovation. Paul was named the King of Lateral Thinking Puzzles–a worthy title as he wrote the book about lateral thinking. We discussed the power lateral thinking has on solving problems by way of unusual or creative approaches; get creative to be creative. 

One of the ways I pursue creative approaches to ideation block is by exploring the Worst Possible Idea–an exercise that encourages team members to generate the worst possible solutions of an idea. The “reverse” search relieves the pressure of ideation and instead offers low-risk space to exercise creative muscles. It also allows the team to safely challenge their assumptions and gain insights towards great ideas by considering the ones they know won’t work. 

I got curious about what other people do to overcome ideation blocks, so I asked my team at Voltage Control. Here’s what they had to say.

VC Team: How We Overcome Ideation Blocks

Annie H., Workshop Facilitator

One of my favorite activities is a “fishbowl”. I find this activity works best in larger teams that are having trouble listening to one another, and keep getting stuck in long-winded debates that lead nowhere. 

Three people sit in a circle in the middle of the room (the inner circle i.e. the fishbowl) and the rest of the audience sits in a larger outer circle around. Those in the fishbowl receive a prompt from the facilitator and begin to have a conversation. Only those in the inner circle, or fishbowl, speak. Participants in the outer circle listen to the discussion and take notes. Participants in the fishbowl move from the inner circle to the outer circle when they feel finished with their part of the conversation. When a seat is vacated, another participant will get up from the outer circle and join the inner circle to continue the conversation. The exercise generally lasts from 30-45 minutes. 

This exercise can also be done virtually. In Zoom, those in the fishbowl will keep their video cameras on, and everyone in the outer circle keeps their video off. To leave the fishbowl, you just turn your video off. This worked magically when I was leading a group of philanthropists and financial service providers working together to build new financial products that better incorporated humanitarian and environmental metrics (alongside the financial outcomes). These two groups are often pitted against each other, so it was difficult to get them to see themselves as part of the same team. The fishbowl helped them to get unstuck and move forward. It helped the team get a visceral experience of self-management. 

It can offer a highly dynamic setting to discuss controversial issues. When the people in the fishbowl are public officials or other decision-makers, this technique can help bring transparency to the decision-making process and increase trust and understanding about complex issues.

Dawn S., Lead Designer

As far as design goes, I love analogous inspiration. Especially when I’ve got a unique request for a MURAL design and what normally doesn’t work, simply looking for inspiration from other sources helps a lot along with what exactly draws my eye to it. I can pull those elements into “my” design–steal like a (sneaky) artist mentality.

Erik S., VP of Learning Experience

I like cover stories (or some variation) that gets folks to think about what success looks like long into the future. And, since folks are oftentimes much more comfortable with incremental thinking here, I ask them to channel science fiction for their response: imagine what needs to be and we’ll figure out the tech and resources later.

I also turn to Liberating Structures activities: 25:10 Crowdsourcing can be a great way to generate and quickly sift a variety of ideas. And 15% solutions can get people to focus on what is within their control to move forward (vs. what they can’t do).

Jamie L., Executive Assistant

I love Pat Flynn’s book “Will it Fly” which is actually about how to figure out if a business idea will sell or work, but I feel like when it comes to big decision making about almost anything whether in a group or doing in on your own, you can use many of the principles and exercises in his book to work through it.

Jamie G., Innovations Master Facilitator

Dancing!! Seriously, if I can put everything aside and get some movement in, I can get unstuck, feel good and motivated so then I sit down to work again and I feel playful & creative!

Jenni, Head of Operations

Diagrams are for sure my favorite thing to do. Working forwards or backward really helps me get creative, and the open space of a MURAL or physical whiteboard gives me the room I need to lay it all out.

I love the What If game. It’s a great asset in risk management, especially when paired with worst-case scenario framing. My favorite question to get things going is “What if aliens invaded?” 

Walk and talk is an oldie but a goodie. Get moving and your brain just works better, especially outside.

Frankie F., Marketing Manager

Take a break and walk away from “thinking” about it, literally. I’ll go for a walk, hike, or engage in a different creative activity. Typically my best ideas come to me when I’m fully occupied with something entirely unrelated. 

Visual stream of consciousness thinking using vision boards (MURAL is my favorite)! Similar to stream of consciousness writing, I jot down all ideas and thoughts I have (removing judgment) both in pictures and words for a set period of time. At the end, I step back and assess what I’ve curated–clumping like ideas and connecting my thoughts to see a full picture. 

Visual Thinking


Get Our Visual Thinking

Use this template for getting started with visual collaboration in your next meeting.

Kierra J., Community Manager

I love the “Yes, And” activity when you can reframe it and apply it within brainstorming because it allows you to be as creative and imaginative as possible when thinking through ideas with a team. You don’t have to worry about making sense when the activity happens, as it allows everyone to be collaborative in a “popcorn style” motion. You would have one person scribe to document all the ideas as the activity happens in real-time and then circle back with everyone to discuss, examine, and analyze all the ideas that make the most sense to move forward on once the activity concludes.

We all face ideation blocks at one point or another. Trying different approaches to spark creativity can get us unstuck. But when you are truly stuck, it may even be hard to remember these ideas! Prepare for when you need inspiration ahead of time by creating a list of tricks to pull from. Make sure you have them ready and accessible for when you need them. Keep adding to the list. You’ll discover that some work well for you while others may be less effective for your context. Share your ideas with others and see what works best for them. I’m always looking for new ways to jolt creativity. 

What are your current go-to methods to break through creative holdups? I’d love to hear your ideas! 

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