Picture of a car stuck in the snow

Being creative is tough! And as researchers we need to come up with new ideas all the time.

How can we come up with ideas?

I’ve got lots and lots of ideas on the subject so I’m going to take you for a quick whistle stop tour. This is one of my favourite topics! I love creativity and different ways of getting my brain into gear when it comes to getting ideas. As researchers, we are in the business of ideas, that’s how it works! But how do we come up with them?

The ‘how might we” mantra

An idea usually starts with a question, for example, how might we? How do we? How can we? We’re not just creating ideas that go nowhere, we’re creating ideas to do something with so very solution focused. This is the HOW.  

I think when we’re coming up with ideas, we need to be in an optimistic frame of mind. If we’re already narrowing our thoughts down, it’s really not going to work. Let’s think of all the ideas and then evaluate. Let’s not constrain our thoughts. This is the MIGHT. 

So, let’s think about how we might do things reach for those stars and collaborate! For the most part, research is collaborative. Yes, there are people out there that are working on solo projects, mathematics leaps to mind, for instance. However, we still have to convey those ideas to other people so you still need to think collaboratively.  This is where I think ideas can really spark. We can have the initial ideas going around our heads but if we have conversations, if we share our ideation process with others, it can bring huge clarity and amazing power. So if you’re stuck, go and ask for help. Other researchers get stuck to and talking to people, talking things through, can spark things off.  Alternatively, you could try listening to a podcast or going and reading a book, or even just going for a stroll. All those things can help to prompt our ideas. For me talking to others is key. This is the WE.

Next time you need to think of some ideas, try using the mantra how might we.

The Innovation Process

As researchers, we’re in the innovative process but we still need to come up with new ideas. New doesn’t have to be earth shattering, it might just be how do we do the next iteration of my experiment? Using this as an example we can implement the double diamond model of innovation where have two areas or processes where ideas are formed. In the discovery phase we open up lots of questions, we need lots of ideas to try different things. We might then discover that actually, that particular iteration kind of blows up the experiment. We iterate around to the discovery phase again using feedback from our previous ideas. 

We then go through a definition stage. This is where we really hone our research question. To really ask a very specific question. We then need to develop our ideas around that question until we come to a delivery point. That delivery point might be, a conference presentation, it could be a paper or a patent. 

At certain points in every innovation process, we need to open up our minds, we need to come up with ideas. And then evaluate and iterate.


My background is physics, so let’s start with thinking about ideation in a very structured way. As a physicist, you’d think I like this but I’m actually more of a later thinker! However, let’s start with the structure. If we’re coming up with an invention in a structured way, we’re going to be very logical, it’s going to have a good structure, it’s going to take what we know and move it forward.

We’re going to write things down, we’re going from A to B, it’s a very methodical way of thinking. This is a great place to start.

The Zwicki Box

One of the best places to start, if you’re going to go through this is something called the Zwicki Box.  Zwicki, was a Swiss astronomer, who used a big grid or matrix to explore possibilities.   

What Zwicki did was combine two things, attribute listing and morphological analysis. Attributes,  what do we mean by that? Ok, let’s take biscuits (yum). Our attributes of our biscuit or cookie might be flavour, or it could be shape. Are they going to be circles? Are they going to be squares?, It might be texture. Are we going for a gooey cookie, or a really crumbly biscuit? Those are attributes. 

Once we have the attributes, we list the permutations. So, for shape, we can have round, square, rectangle or triangle. We could have smiley face shapes (Jammie Dodgers, love those). All sorts of things! Those are our attributes, and we’re going to list every permutation of them. We do that for each attribute.  We then get a big long lists of permutations that we can then go through. 

The internet has places where you can go and you can type in these permutations or you can put it in a spreadsheet. It can be a great way of thinking. It is very, very simple and yet, it might uncover the gaps in our knowledge. It can really help you to see things you might have missed. You could get quite brave with it. It’s very systematic and structured and yet could identify biases in our approach.  “We only consider changing these parameters because that is they way it is done” is a surprisingly fixed mindset in some scientists I come across. 

An alternative is to think of assumptions and opposites. Take a chair for example, a chair has legs right, that’s an assumption we all have, if we take the opposite of that would be the chair has no legs. Every discipline is surrounded by assumptions. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. This isn’t this without that, is that always the case though?  Are these assumptions always right? By taking on board what we assume, switching it upside down, going, right? What do I have to do to make this, you know, completely different, can open up some possibilities. Now, these might not be practical possibilities, but they might spark ideas. 

I’m a big fan of opposite thinking – or am I? See what I did there. 

Reframing Matrix

This one comes from the world of business. In a business we might come up with an idea and we would look at it from the HR point of view, the customer point of view, the fabrication point of view and the legal point of view. All would have a different take on the proposal – coming from their own experiences and knowledge. 

In a university we can look at it from different viewpoints  – our disciplines, cultures, nationalities, outside experience etc. One discipline might have assumptions but another one will have a completely different set of assumptions. Therefore, by looking at an idea, or a problem, from different perspectives you might uncover something that you’ve never thought of. Different people will latch on to different things. This where collaboration can be key.  To get those different viewpoints and uncover different assumptions. I love the university sector for this reason – no two researchers, even if in the same field, are ever the same. 

As researchers we are expected to solve problems and uncover new discoveries but even the most creative person will suffer from ideation dry spell. The methods above serve well to shake up our thinking, encourage us to work together and seek routes forward. The HOW MIGHT WE mantra! 

If you are stuck for ideas on your career I offer early career researchers coaching and application clinics. Get in contact!


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