How to get ideas when you want

Several people ask me this question. People in business are more interested in this than anyone else – for them time is money. Therefore the quicker they get ideas, seize opportunities, solve problems – the more money they make or save.

If you want to know how to get ideas on demand, we must first know how we get ideas. I share here an explanation I gave to a 10 year old boy. He had wanted to know how we get ideas.

“We get ideas from our brains/minds. Our brains and minds already have lots of information stored there based on what we see, what we hear and what we experience. It is like one huge customized Wikipedia.

You keep pulling out information from there, as and when you want. The more often you use it, the faster you get information because you become an expert in getting information.”

“Like in Google?”


“What about ideas? Is it the same way?”

“More or less. However in the case of ideas we may sometimes combine two different pieces of information and get a new idea.”

“Give me an example.”

“Do you like Vada Pav?”

“Yes, I love it.”

“The vada pav is an interesting example. You know the pav was always there. So was the vada. One day somebody simply thought of combining them. And we got vada pav!”


If you are in business, here are a few suggestions I have for helping you get ideas on demand. The good news is that my suggestions are tried and tested. They are guaranteed – they work. The bad news is that you have to put in the effort, to get ideas on demand effortlessly!

Read biographies of successful inventors, business people. They are rich with information about how they solved problems, created new ideas etc. Just reading the books is not enough. Make notes. Talk about what you read to a friend. If possible send an e-mail about it to a customer or any one else. This way you will remember it. I can recall several stories, ideas, examples that happened 20 years ago, because I talk about them, write about them.

Ideas have a way of occurring to you when you least expect them. The first thing is to stay tuned, like a good radio receiver. (Imagine complaining about your car FM radio not working, when it is not even switched on!) The second thing is to capture the ideas immediately.(They tend to evaporate in seconds).  Keep a small note book and pen with you. Your cellphone could be a great device. Capture it as a note or send it as an sms to your wife/colleague/secretary. On some cell phones (iPhone for instance), you can simply create a voice memo.

Identify what triggers ideas for you. For me music is a great trigger. Travel is another trigger. Therefore I go prepared with a note book and a pen. Often in a music concert my mind goes on an overdrive generating ideas on a current project. I capture everything. People think I am mad, but so what?

Spend time on the internet at least 15 minutes a day on browsing for subjects of importance to your business. Bookmark sites that you find not just interesting but useful as well. One good example is . I go to this site whenever I am looking for ideas. It has a huge database of ideas from all around the world, on various business categories.
I spend a lot of time on YouTube, especially on TED talks. The kind of inputs I get there is mind boggling.

When you want ideas what should you do, where should you go and whom should you talk to? Most people get stuck for ideas, because they do not have answers to these three important questions.  Prepare your checklist for each.  For instance if I am looking for ideas  regarding software or IT related stuff  I will talk to a set of friends. They are very different people. I ask each person the same question; and I get 10 different options!

Join networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook etc. Be active, join groups relevant to you. Follow the discussion in the groups. Sometimes you may find them boring, but often you might find them useful. Make notes of what is useful for you. You can also post your questions there. People are happy to answer them – free!

Learn to define your problem or opportunity sharply in one single sentence. Often what you think of as the problem may not be the real one. You must address the real issue. Be careful about the assumptions you make. They limit the quality of answers you get. Here is an example. An NGO wanted to know “How do I increase the loyalty of my donor base” On probing and questioning the real issue came out to be “How do I get my donors to donate more frequently”. The second question got her fantastic answers. She had assumed that it was a loyalty issue! Do not ask questions mechanically. Questions must emanate from your genuine curiosity to know something better.

Surround yourself with honest friends. Honest friends are not afraid of telling you the truth and asking difficult questions. These are special people who will open your minds and help you think clearly. Caution: You may not like their questions, because it will make you come face to face with the truth and make you squirm. You will be tempted to avoid them and you will rationalize it by saying “Oh they will complicate things by asking too many questions. I do not have the time for it now.” You are fooling yourself. Very often you will end up redoing things because you had not done the home work thoroughly. These people help you do the home work well.

Also surround yourself with friends who are experts in some thing or the other. Remember, experts love solving problems and giving advice! (May not be free all the time.) Experts also tell you where to go, whom to meet and what to ask. Something you might never have known.
Many people think asking for help is admitting to the other person that you do not know. There is nothing wrong in asking for help. You can ask for help from any one. I often ask my driver about something and he comes out with very useful suggestions. If you do not ask, thou shall not get.

Use e-mail. Send a request to your friends regarding what you are working on. Friends are happy to help. I was recently writing an article on Gandhi for a book, and I wrote to 30 people for inputs. I got amazing stuff. Sometimes I use an online survey; that is very effective too.
Become members of professional bodies pertaining to your business. All members may not be up to your standard. Cultivate the few good ones.

Be a helpful resource for customers, associates and friends. They should feel comfortable asking you for help.  You will sometimes get unusual requests and in the process you will get to know new things. Asking and giving help is a reciprocal process.

Meet people who want to meet you. You might be afraid that they might waste your time. They will, if you let them. When people ask to see me I politely ask what they want to see me about. Often, I finish the work on phone. If a meeting is required I try to know more about the person, so when we meet I not only know what to expect, I also know what to ask . I always learn something new.

Master the art of asking questions.  The man who has the answers is clever, the man who asks the right questions is wise. ( I do not know who said this; I like it.)

Be an idea magnet. When people have interesting things to share they will reach out to you. I learn a lot through this process. People will also mail you interesting stuff. I get a lot of mail from friends on unusual new products, books, articles, interviews. Many things I did not know existed.

Collect books/materials on idea generation techniques. The more you read about them, the better the chances that you will use them. Create your own little tool kit for generating ideas. Why do you need a tool kit? Have you tried prying open a wooden case with you bare hands? Prying open your mind is tougher. These tools will help you open your mind and remove the clogs there. Most essential when you are looking for ideas.

When you go through my suggestions you might say, “All this will take too much time.” Just consider the example of instant coffee. You can make yourself a cup of instant coffee, in a matter of minutes. But do you know how much time it takes to produce instant coffee? It is an entire process, albeit fascinating. It takes several months – starting from buying the coffee beans in an auction, to packing that freeze dried instant coffee in that 50g jar!

The moral of the story: Invest time upfront on preparing the mind. Sow all the right seeds in it. Only then will you gets ideas on demand.

If you want instant cash from an ATM, you must have money in your bank. If you want instant ideas on demand, you must have done enough work on your mind.

“Ah! There you are. Do you practise what you preach?”

“Good Morning Prasna**. I practise, but don’t preach!”

“Clever. Do you know others who do many of the things you have talked about?”

” There are many. Here is what I have done. I asked several friends this question ‘How do you get your ideas?’. I am bringing out an e-book with all their tips.”

“That is smart. Now you are crowd sourcing writing a book! When will the book be ready.”

“By December 31, 2011. I am hoping to give that book as my New Year gift to friends and others who are interested.”

“Now that you have got over your inertia, will you be more regular in writing your blogs?”

“I promise.”

Picture by numstead available under a Creative Commons Attribution- licensed for commercial use.

**Prasna Rao is an unusual friend. He appears every time I start writing something. He is almost always there when I am writing my blog. He asks questions that are razor sharp and often makes me uncomfortable. He is relentless till I answer his questions in simple, clear terms. You might find that he is most of the times asking questions that you want to. Therefore he is on your side, while he is putting me in the dock. I call him my Uninvited Coach



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