Better brainstorming: creative strategies for tough problems

Sandra Stewart | November 29, 2016

Brainstorming has gotten a bad name lately, at least in its most commonly practiced form: a group of people with a cold start on a problem shout ideas at a white board until the session recorder’s writing hand cramps up or everyone’s eyes glaze over.

New bright idea creative brainstorming lightbulb as creativity metaphor. Flat .

But that’s not the only way to shake loose creative ideas from your hive’s mind. (It’s not even the best way to brainstorm—most people do better with a more structured approach.) We use a mix of creative strategies at Thinkshift—partly to be sure we’re looking at a problem from all the angles and partly so that we don’t bore ourselves into dull-wittedness. Some of our favorite exercises are below. We’re typically trying to uncover core brand elements and reframe concepts for stronger audience appeal, but these exercises can work with all kinds of communications and business problems.

The Take Away
Before leaving the house, take off at least one piece of jewelry, Coco Chanel purportedly advised. Whether she said it or not, it’s good advice—not just for dressing but also for communicating with power and clarity. We all have a tendency to lay it on heavy, trying to say everything at once or attaching all kinds of distracting shiny baubles to designs or plans.

The Take Away exercise is a process of stripping down. Remove an element and consider the result: are you gaining in focus what you lost in clarity? Keep doing this, removing every element you can until you get to the absolute simplest form that achieves your goal. Steve Jobs demanded a process like this in developing Apple products, and that worked out pretty well.

Oblique Strategies
Oblique Strategies are a series of instructions, phrases and one-word prompts created by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt as a way to break through creative blocks. They range from the relatively straightforward “Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them” to the gnomic “water” (you figure out what to do with it). Oblique Strategies can be a fun—and challenging—way to force team thinking off its usual tracks. The NPR economics podcast Planet Money gave it a try on Episode #736 in an effort to find a fresh way to talk about the Nobel Prize for economics. And yes, there’s an app for this.

Word Trees
Word Trees are handy when you need to find a way to uncover brand attributes or describe something that’s distinctive and has emotional resonance. Start a Word Tree by listing words related to a broad concept—say, energy. Then for each word on the list, start a new list of related words. You can do this for several generations, creating a branching structure. The point is to find unexpected relationships and words that have the right quality but may not have come immediately to mind.

Blue Sky
The exercises above all involve constraints in some way, but what if you didn’t have any? The Blue Sky exercise involves envisioning what you would do or create if there were no limits (time, talent, money, laws of physics), and then working out what would have to happen for you to achieve that. Are there goals you can plot a course toward? Can you break it down into steps? What can you do right now?

If Blue Sky gets you going, you might also check out a few similar processes from design firms. See Motivate Design’s presentation on its business design tool “What If,” or the Be Bold and Let Go categories in Future Partners’ free resources area. (The company has built a small empire around its Think Wrong book on creative problem solving, which is also worth checking out.)

The Five Whys
The 5 Whys exercise is a way of getting to the root of a problem and—hopefully—finding a clever solution. (We gleaned it from Andrew Razeghi’s The Riddle: Where Ideas Come from and How to Have Better Ones.) Start with a problem in the form of a question—say, “Why are we having so much trouble expanding in this market?” List your answers. Pick one and ask a “why” question about it. Then ask “why” about that answer, and continue until you get to the fifth “why.” At that point, you should have a realization or inspiration.

Whatever exercises you use, keep in mind that the result of any creative problem-solving session is just the beginning: an idea. Your ability to execute on the idea will determine whether it’s generic or genius.

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