It's a great technique: Whenever you have a problem to solve, or need to come up with a fresh idea, challenge yourself to come up with at least three ideas, not just one. Or if you are a team leader, challenge your team to find three ways of doing something, not just settling for their first plan.
I had a client who has been landed with the job of liaising with his company's European offices by phone, which from Sydney means late night phone calls, often for two or three hours, sometimes more. He gets limited time off in lieu, but the main problem is that he has a young family who miss out on his company at night, and he is left feeling both tired and resentful. When I quizzed him, it turns out this has gone on for over four years, up to four nights each week!
I challenged him to find a way of stopping it, and soon. His first solution was to write an email suggesting they find someone in Europe to give this support (though he already knows there is no budget for this). His second solution was simply to refuse to do it any more, effectively threatening to resign. A high risk strategy, that one.
When I explained that I always ask for three solutions, he thought for a few minutes and said, with a look of dawning possibility on his face, 'I could tell them I am not available after next week for phone discussions outside Sydney business hours, but if they summarise the top three (there's that magic number again) challenges or concerns at the end of their phone meeting and email it to me, I will respond by email within 24 hours'. He left soon afterwards, already drafting his memo in his head...
That was a couple of years ago now, but I have never forgotten the speed with which he solved his problem one he was introduced to this tool - or the profound effect the solution had on his life.
The thinking behind this most excellent technique is that we often settle for the first halfway decent idea, either because of time pressure, laziness, or lack of belief in our ability to come up with a really innovative winner. By being 'forced' to have at least three ideas, we give ourselves a fighting chance of digging deeper to something really fresh.
The trick is not to edit yourself at this early phase, to be as wild as you can. It's not as if every idea has to be practical, a proven winner, or even cheap or legal - those considerations kick in later. For now, the wildest idea is likely to be the one that contains the seed of the really brilliant solution.
Of course, we don't always need to dig this deep; often, what you did last time, or a small variation on that, is just fine. But when you do need some fresh thinking, this is one of the speediest and most effective tools I know.
So, what are your three ideas?