If I Only Had a Brain(storm): Okay, Now What?

By on August 27, 2018

Part 2


In Part I of my blog on brainstorming, I shared some of the rather disappointing science behind traditional brainstorming. Reading that blog, you might think that it’s time to give up brainstorming sessions, but wait! With just a few adjustments, you can still have productive idea-generating sessions and achieve the “burstiness” so many teams strive for. So without further ado, here are your new rules of brainstorming:


Rule #1: Get Better at Selecting the Team

We often stack the brainstorm team with subject matter experts, leaders who want their voice heard (and ego stroked) and (let’s face it) people we like and tend to agree with. However, it’s better to have at least a few people with different viewpoints and little direct experience with the topic and challenge. While these people may have some uninformed and misguided ideas, they are also more likely to come up with interesting, big picture insights that the experts deeply entrenched in the topic may not see.


Rule #2: Create the Right Environment

You’ve no doubt heard of the term psychological safety? That’s what you need to have in your brainstorm group. That doesn’t mean any crazy idea flies (see Rule #3), but rather that people feel they can take risks and think outside the box and not be mocked or judged. A great idea I heard was kicking off the session by having every member of your group tell an embarrassing story about themselves to make everyone feel comfortable and safe.


Rule #3: Saying There Is No Bad Idea … Is a Bad Idea

This was mentioned in Part I of this blog, but it bears repeating here. As Adam Grant puts it, “People are more creative in groups where criticism is okay because it raises the bar. Psychological safety doesn’t mean that everything is all warm and fuzzy.” In short, your group needs to have standards, and the expectation of quality ideas.


Rule #4: Rules Are Your Friend

This is something creative people know all too well: in general, more rules equal more creativity. One of the biggest problems with brainstorms is the “anything goes” lack of focus and the initial blank slate that can be so daunting. Tell people exactly what the problem to be solved is, constraints you’re working under, deadlines and the ultimate goal of the project.


Try the 6-3-5 method

This technique, developed by Bernd Tohrback of Germany, has been around for close to 50 years and frankly I’m surprised it’s not more popular. What makes this technique so appealing is that unlike traditional brainstorming, it lets people come up with ideas separately (divergent thinking) and THEN uses the wisdom of crowds (convergent thinking) to refine and build on those ideas. Here’s how it works:

  • 6 people sit at a table and write down
  • 3 ideas. Then you pass your ideas to the person on the right who builds on them. The ideas are passed around
  • 5 times so everyone has a chance to build on the ideas. Then the group works together to review, evaluate and improve the ideas


The next time you need to lead a brainstorming session, why not try the 6-3-5 method – or some of the new rules above? If you’re interested in learning how to use the 6-3-5 method with a remote group, just reach out! Happy (not) brainstorming!

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