To come up with a lot of ideas, go narrow to broad

A great way to come up with ideas on-the-fly is going narrow in order to go broad. Focusing briefly before going wide, then focusing back in again and repeating as necessary.

The technique works like this: simplify by focusing-in on or asking questions about what you already know, then use those questions to go broad and really explore the extremes, finally going back to simplify in order to generate a long list of ideas.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of this technique, we can try using it with a common creativity test: the single object test.

In this classic test of creative ability, you’re given an everyday object and asked to come up with as many uses for it as you can in short amount of time, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. For the sake of this exercise, let’s say the object we’re brainstorming about is a good, old fashioned brick.

What most people do immediately when confronted with this test is trying to come up with any top-of-mind ideas for how the brick might be used. The most obvious uses would be: starting to build a house, as a way to prop something up or open, or as a way to break a window. You can probably come up with a number of other ideas quickly too. The problem with this approach is it’s limited to stand-out ideas and less creative ones. Of course a brick can be used for building a house, that’s what they’re commonly used for.

What we want to try and do is come up with a lot more—and more varied—ideas by going narrow, broad, then narrow again.

Assuming we all have some shared idea of what a brick is, the first step of the technique is to focus-in. What do we know about bricks? What are they good for, where have we seen them used? What are the traits we know of? Where have we’ve seen bricks used before?

Well, we know bricks are heavy, they’re typically used for construction or for decoration on the outsides of buildings, they can come in many colors but are typically a shade of red, and so on.

Keeping these things in mind, we can start to go broad, expanding our thinking on each subject or feature we’ve identified in the previous step.

Construction makes me think a brick could be used as a crude shovel, or hammer. We could use the brick as a leveling tool to see if things are straight, or as a prop for holding tools or supplies. The brick could be used as a marker, to point out where an underground pipe or camoflouged hole is.

For decoration I’m thinking the two holes typically found in a brick could be used as vase for holding plants. The brick could be used as a bookend, a doorstop, or the foundation for a table. It could be used as a paperweight, a way to keep dirty shoes off the clean floor, or—for those daring enough—a way to store wine bottles (the cork-end of the bottle could fit into the brick holes).

If at any point you become stuck, unable to think of more ideas, simply go broad again. What else do we know about bricks? How are they made, who works with them most, and why were they invented in the first place? Which other features of the brick stand out?

Once you begin answering these questions you’ll have fuel to narrow-in on each of them in order to generate even more ideas.

And that’s the technique of going narrow in order to go broad for generating a lot of ideas.