12 Surprising Questions That Turn Your Boring Idea into an Extraordinary One

04/10/2015 12:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

The most creative people and companies have a special relationship with surprise. To generate surprising new ideas, they invite in surprise.

How does one invite surprise?

The invention company Quirky holds company-wide blackouts. Employees have to take time away from work (and email) and do anything other than work. Creative individuals do the same by building empty space into their calendars.

Legendary design firm IDEO inspires its clients by taking them on surprising, comfort-zone stretching experiences (ranging from sushi tastings in Japan to soup kitchen visits in inner cities). Creative individuals are also avid experience collectors.

The employee perks company Next Jump gives their own employees regular doses of surprise with learning perks: workshops, playful outings, and challenging volunteer opportunities. Creative individuals can make the same surprise opportunities for themselves simply by learning news things on a regular basis.

Don't have time for blackouts, new experiences, and learning random things? That's okay. To breathe new life into an idea when you're short on time, you can mix surprise into your thinking simply by asking questions. Ask a surprising question, and you'll get a surprising answer.

Here are our favorite 12 questions to ask to boost creativity:

  1. What if I had to make this the worst idea ever? (What's the opposite of this terrible idea?)
  2. What if money were no object?
  3. What if I had magical powers, and I could change just one thing about this idea?
  4. What if this idea broke a law?
  5. What if this idea had to make someone laugh?
  6. What if I had 100 volunteers willing to help me pull it off?
  7. What if my budget were $1?
  8. What if _____ were the one who had to improve this idea? (Fill in the blank with inspiring and diverse individuals: my mom, Oprah, my cat)
  9. What if I had to get an 8-year-old to love it?
  10. What if I were 8 years old? (How would I see it differently)?
  11. What if there was a movie about this idea? (What would be the plot? The characters? The climax? The soundtrack? The title?)
  12. What if I had to surprise people with this idea? (What are people's expectations? How can I violate them?)

Once you have your answers, keep adding unusual questions to the list until you spot your most surprising idea.

Why does surprise spark creativity?
As a perfect representation of how surprise works in our brains, consider the surprise search engine Bananaslug mixes the user's query with a random search term (e.g., emotion, color, tarot card). Rather than logical, predictable Google search results, Bananaslug generates results that are entirely unpredictable and unexpected. The simple act of mixing in randomness leads to surprising new discoveries.

In short, surprise interrupts our patterns. It shifts our thinking and changes our perspectives. It also creates new neural pathways, leading more ideas to bump into one another and generate something new.

Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger are authors of SURPRISE: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected (Perigee Hardcover; ISBN 9780399169823; On Sale April 7, 2015).