Alternate Uses

Alternate Uses

Innovation Skills
15 minutes

The Alternate Uses Test asks us to think of as many uses as possible for a simple object, like a brick or a paperclip. The test is usually time-constrained. It measures divergent thinking, in that it is looking for as many ideas as possible.


One of the best quotes about creativity comes from Linus Pauling: "the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” The Alternate Uses Test encourages us to use fluency, flexibility, originality, elaboration and openness to generate great ideas.
In Detail

One of the best quotes about creativity comes from Linus Pauling:

"The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”

This is absolutely true. The more ideas you have, the more chance you have that one of them will be really brilliant.

Research backs this up: in Adam Grant's excellent book "Originals", he quotes creativity researcher Dean Simonton:

"The odds of producing an influential or successful idea are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.”

Simonton says that prolific people are the most original people, and they generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the most volume.

Adam Grant cites the example of Picasso, who is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific painter ever. It has been estimated that Picasso produced about 13,500 paintings and designs, 100,000 prints and engravings, 34,000 book illustrations and 300 sculptures and ceramics.

So it's clear what you have to do. You have to push yourself to get beyond the first ideas you have. The first idea is never the best idea. This is essentially shallow thinking - your first ideas are the most obvious, the most cliched.

This can be hard to accept and move on from. Sometimes we might really like our first ideas. They're perfectly good, we might argue, why waste time thinking of more when we have some gems already?

This tunnel vision we experience around our first ideas is often called “design fixation.” We get excited by our first idea, so get bogged down in proving it works rather than looking for better alternatives. Another term for this is confirmation bias. We like our idea so much we look for things to back it up, to prove us right. Whereas it would actually better to look for reasons why we might be wrong, in order to reveal any weaknesses or failings in our idea.

Try setting yourself an idea quota. Rather than the usual 5 or 10 ideas for a project, try and generate 100. Really push yourself.

Thomas Edison set idea quotas to make sure he was pumping out ideas regularly. His personal quota was a minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months.

Of course you can go over your idea quota if you are on a roll. Some of the ideas you come up with may seem ridiculous or far-fetched, but this is OK - the exercise of stretching your brain is incredibly useful. And some of those far-fetched ideas might become starting points for new waves of thinking.


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