Watch: How to come up with your next idea

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A good idea always comes down to more than just a eureka moment. Your last bolt of clarity was likely dependent on a whole range of inputs, and a natural openness to them that eventually prompted the insight that sparked the idea.

Lucky for all of us, the ability to coax those kinds of inputs can be practiced and learned. In fact, Sarah Stein Greenberg, the longtime executive director of the Stanford (officially the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University) has compiled a book of 81 different exercises to help with exactly that.

At a Quartz at Work (from anywhere) workshop on how to come up with your next idea, Stein Greenberg drew from passages in her book, called Creative Acts for Curious People, and from a career spent designing new products and services and advising others to do the same. Click the large image above for the complete video replay, and read on for just a few of the insights she shared at the Oct. 14 live event.

1. Seek outside perspective

To the teacher who asked for tips to keep class lessons fresh and interesting to students, Stein Greenberg advised going to “unexpected experts”—in this case, former students. Who better to judge how the information was presented and what they retained and how they incorporated the information into their lives? “That’s how we really often start in design, which is we go and seek perspective from people other than ourselves,” Stein Greenberg said, predicting that the exercise of talking to former students would put a teacher back in touch with some of the more creative aspects of their work.

2. When things are moving fast, think about small things you can do to test the new situation you’re in

“A lot of folks attempt to think their way out of a foggy problem, and that is always less effective than just trying something small and getting some new data,” Stein Greenberg said. In times like this (i.e. in the midst of a global pandemic that’s upending everything), “that bias toward action, that willingness to do something and learn from it, that becomes increasingly important,” she said.

3. Framing the problem you’re trying to solve can be an iterative process, too

Sometimes, it’s not just solutions that require multiple drafts and revisions. After discussing different ways to go about framing a problem, someone in the audience asked: How do you know if you framed the problem correctly?

“You don’t know, you never fully know,” Stein Greenberg empathized. “But it’s testable.” The feedback you get on your solutions will help you understand whether you even pinpointed the right problem. But even before that point, there can be hints as to whether you framed things correctly. “There are ways you can diagnose your own problem statement,” Stein Greenberg said. For starters, it should revolve around the need you’ve identified, without hinting at the solutions.

As one of the exercises in the book encourages us, try thinking about what people need using verbs instead of nouns. If you saw someone standing on tiptoes to reach something, you might say, “That person needs a ladder.” That’s both the problem and the solution. If you used a verb instead (i.e. “That person needs to grab an item from a high shelf”) you might be open to a solution like moving the item to a lower shelf, or lowering the height of the shelf altogether, either of which might be a more logical solution than giving the person a ladder. “If [your problem statement] has a solution baked in, then it really constrains where you’re going to go,” Stein Greenberg said.

4. Once you’ve opened your mind to the inputs, give your brain a rest

“I do think for many of us there’s a flow state we can get into, when we feel our best ideas happen,” Stein Greenberg said. For her, that flow state can often be found during her commute. When she has a problem to work out, she puts away her podcasts and music and just focuses. “At first my brain is just worrying and worrying and buzzing—and then something will relax and soften, and often I will have what I think of as my most creative ideas in that silence, after a period of time,” she said. “On a 45-, 50-minute commute, if I do that, by the end I’ve gotten a whole bunch of new ideas—[more than] if I’d sat down and tried to work the problem.”

5. What to do when other stakeholders disagree with your ideas

“That is something to really pay attention to,” Stein Greenberg said. “If you’re creating new products and services and putting them out in the world, you’re enacting someone’s values through that process. And so if you’re finding yourself consistently at odds, in the environment that you’re in, with how the needs are being interpreted or framed, or with what an organization is willing to do, you have your ability to try to bring new perspectives to life—to really foreground the needs and the issues that you’re trying to bring attention to. But ultimately, if you’re trying to feel values-aligned, that might not be the right situation for you.”