Creative thinking and problem-solving tools don’t have to cost a lot of money. In fact, there are a surprising number of free brainstorming tools available on the Web that can help you generate breakthrough ideas today. Here are some of the most notable ones:
Downloadable text-based tools
EyeWire Creativity Cards
This two-page PDF file contains 20 colorful creativity cards that you can cut out and mount on heavy card stock to form a highly portable idea generation deck. Each card contains a brief brainstorming exercise to help stimulate your creative muse. These exercises include proven techniques such as “change viewpoints,” ” think in opposites” and “shake your habits.” These attractive, colorful cards will make a valuable addition to your creative problem-solving toolkit!
The Idea Miner Journal is a downloadable document, available in Microsoft Word or plain text formats and contains a series of thought provoking questions and exercises. It’s essentially a self-contained idea journal, to which you can easily add your own thoughts and ideas. If you haven’t created such a journal to capture your most valuable thoughts, the Idea Miner Journal could be a great starting point for you. I especially like the fact that the journal is available in two different document formats, making it suitable for use on a desktop PC as well as on your favorite PDA!
Pocket Generator of Ideas
According to the author of this free creativity tool, it is an “experimental methodology for creating, inventing and generating new ideas.” This tool consists of a list that is divided into 10 sections: reversal, division, rhythm, similarities/associations, the system, resources, the middleman, management, setting the task and miscellaneous. Each of these sections contains one or more creative problem-solving techniques, some of which seem to be inspired by the TRIZ methodology.
This list of creative problem-solving techniques is available in plain text format or as a PDF file. I prefer the PDF, because it displays the sections in a format of eight cards to a page, which you can cut apart and glue to heavy paper stock to form a brainstorming card deck.
CPS Cheat Sheet
This colorful, playful set of instructions does a terrific job of explaining how to use the popular, proven six-step creative problem-solving (CPS) process. The instructions are easy to follow, and each step includes several examples to help you learn how to apply the CPS process to your needs.
Harvey cards are another set of keywords that can be cut out and use like a card deck. Thought-stimulating words included in the Harvey cards include animate, contradict, substitute, distort, isolates and combine. The keywords and explanations in this tool are clear, concise and well thought out, but the formatting is a bit strange — some of the cards were split between two pages when I printed them out. The developer of this tool should really think about creating a downloadable PDF version to avoid such printing problems.
The 100 What’s of Creativity
This PDF booklet, as its name implies, contains 100 “what if” questions that can serve as a powerful catalyst for your creative mind. This free e-book begins with a list of all 100 questions, and then devotes a full page to each one. Each page contains a question, followed by a short explanation of it and several examples of how to use it. My only complaint is that this tool isn’t as portable as it could have been, because the author has configured at this PDF file so that you cannot print it out. Still, I highly recommend this tool; it should be part of every innovator’s creative problem-solving toolbox.
Web-based creativity tools
In addition to these downloadable, text-based tools, a number of creativity experts have generously created these valuable online idea generation tools, which you can use for free:
Creative Whack is a marvelous online adaptation of Roger von Oech’s popular Creative Whack Pack card deck, which is in turn based on the author’s two best-selling creativity books, A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants. When you visit this Web page, it randomly displays one of 64 creative whacks, complete with the whimsical illustration from the card deck. If you click the refresh button in your browser, another creative whack will be displayed. This is one of my favorite brainstorming tools, online or offline! (click here to read my review of von Oech’s newest brainstorming tool, the Innovative Whack Pack)
This online tool, provided by Idea Champions, first asks you to state your problem or challenge. Next, it generates a list of random adjectives, and inserts them into questions to help you to generate fresh ideas and insights (example: “What insights or ideas about my challenge do I get from the word ‘unbreakable?'”). Next, Jump Start asks you to record the underlying principle that is embodied in your favorite idea from the previous step. It also asks you to record any new, actionable ideas are sparked by this underlying principle. Finally, this online tool asks you to enter the subject, e-mail address and name of someone to whom you’d like to send your new idea — someone whose support and collaboration you need to help make the idea a reality. Of course, you could always use this step to send your idea to yourself, so that you have a permanent record of your Jump Start session. I think this is a very cool feature!
The Idea Lottery, also from Idea Champions, is designed to help you to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics. Using an online form, the Idea Lottery first asks you to define your challenge. Next, you are instructed to enter up to 15 elements of your challenge into form fields, plus up to six random words unrelated to your challenge. Idea Lottery uses this information to generate a 5×5 grid (see the illustration at top right) containing your words, plus several additional ones that it randomly generates. You can then use these words, and the connections between them, to spark some original ideas.
Job Force, a brainstorming tool located on Peter Lloyd’s extensive GoCreate website, asks you to consider how a person in a particular profession would solve your problem or challenge. This is a very simple tool, but it’s a valuable “sleight of head” exercise that could give you some great insights. If you don’t like the profession displayed, simply click the refresh button of your browser, and Job Force will display a new one.
Watizit is the online version of an idea-generating technique called brainlining. Developed by Dave Dufour, a speaker and creativity expert, Watizit uses ambiguous graphics to push you to generate free associations, which can then be used as creative triggers to help you solve your problem.
Random Word Technique
This online tool, offered by Creativity Unleashed, consists of a three-step process: First, you type a description of your problem, challenge or opportunity into a web page form. Second, you look at the random word displayed on the web page, and use a second form field to note any associations that it makes you think of. After you have jotted down a number of words or short phrases, you move on to the third and final step, which is where you review your associations and your problem statement, and determine if you could adapt any of your associations to your current problem. CuL provides a third form field where you can record your thoughts generated in this final step.
It’s been said that a picture is worth 1,000 words. So it stands to reason that pictures can be a rich source of creative inspiration and ideas. This free tool displays one of ten pictures at random, to help stimulate your creative muse. This web page is actually a free, limited trial of the random picture tool included in the Brainstorming Toolbox software program, which contains the random picture tool with a significantly expanded database of images. (click here to read my review of Brainstorming Toolbox).
The Solution Machine
Last but certainly not least, The Solution Machine is the online version of a creativity software program that used to be available for Windows and Macintosh PCs. It helps you to clearly state your problem or challenge, brainstorm creative ideas using imagery and other techniques, and then to evaluate the ideas you’ve generated.
As you can see, the Web contains a wealth of free brainstorming and creative problem solving tools, which vary in their focus and level of sophistication. Why not give some of them a try – I think you may be surprised by the results!