How to build on the ideas of others

In creative workshops we are told to build on the ideas of others, but how do you actually do that? How do I take an idea, usually someone else’s, and summon forth a new one?

Note: should you prefer, there is a video version of this piece on you YouTube.

In the book Teach Your Child How to Think, by Edward de Bono, there is a short chapter that shows you just how to do that! The rest of the book is a stinker —or at least, fails to deliver on the promise of the title — but those few pages are pure gold. The chapter in question is on something that de Bono calls Movement.

We are taught that to be creative we should postpone judgement. But this is too weak, it doesn’t tell us what to do instead. Movement is an active and deliberate operation where you look at what is before you and use it to move forward. In movement any way forward counts. de Bono likens this to poetry and metaphor. I would add play and humour.

de Bono teaches a handful practical techniques for how to get movement from any idea. They are these:

1. Attitude

Approach ideas with the intention of seeing where they lead you, what they suggest, and what might be potentially interesting about them. Just having this intention will make a huge difference.

In my opinion it’s an attitude that can be equally useful in the rest of life; the part you spend outside of workshops. When things that happen to you — both good and bad — see what movement you can you get out of them.

2. Moment-to-moment

A hugely powerful technique, that I have found works well and is easy to teach, is to visualise an idea in action. Instead of seeing the end state of the idea, you play out the idea in your mind (or talking out loud if you are in a group) like a tiny movie. Say someone proposes delivering mail with flying cows — yes, it’s one of those kinds of workshops — you visualise the cows with mail bags strapped on, taking off, flying, manoeuvring and landing. Doing this you end up picturing what happens to the bag during flight. How will it stay on, how will it stay closed, what happens to it at the start and at the end? As you do so new ideas invariably turn up; ideas that you would not have had if you just visualised the static version of the initial idea.

3. Extract a principle

The next technique is slower and trickier. I find that it works poorly in workshops, but that it can be powerful during solitary ideation, or together with other experienced ideators. This is how it goes: you take an existing idea, you analyse it and extract the abstract principle behind it.

For example, a colleague and I were once exploring novel uses of touch screen technology. We came up with an idea based on when the user was not touching the screen of their phone, instead of the usual focus on all the possible ways one could actively interact with the device. We then explored the principle of passive input in a bunch of other contexts and this sparked a host of additional ideas, and two patent applications.

4. Focus on the difference

You have probably had the experience of proposing an idea and someone else saying that they’ve heard or seen the idea before. This type of pronouncement kills an idea instantaneously and without further examination. To get movement, look rather for all the ways in which the idea is different, even if those differences are small.

de Bono gives the example of a plane landing upside down. The difference between a plane landing right-side up and upside down is that upside down the wings would provide downwards thrust. The two cases are similar, but the direction of thrust is different. Focus on this and it might lead to ideas of positive landings, such as landing against the force of a storm.

5. Search for value

Another powerful technique for finding value in a poor idea is to change the context of an idea, rather than the idea itself. Confronted with an idea that seems like a non-starter you can ask under which circumstances the idea would provide value or solve a problem.

de Bono gives the example of everyone wearing yellow at a company. As an isolated idea it doesn’t do much. But if we change the context it could be a solution to help customers identify staff at IKEA. In the context of customers trying to find service staff the idea provides an effective solution.

Understand the properties of the initial idea. Then go looking for a problem that would fit the solution.

I find that the technique provides an often needed change of pace and perspectives, and can be very useful in turning up interesting new problems to solve. For an innovator, finding new problems is just as important — perhaps more so — than finding new solutions.


There are more moves than these five. I have clumped together a couple of de Bono’s and he hints that there are more. I have been collecting moves over the years from all kinds of sources. For now, learn these five. And use them!

A while back I made up some cards. Here is a pdf that you can download. I printed mine out and laminated them. Everything is better laminated. Almost everything.