Archive | Creativity

Brainstorming by Yourself vs. in a Group

About Brainstorming

“Brainstorming” means systematically generating a large number of candidate ideas for some purpose, usually to solve a problem. Brainstorming works because one idea triggers another. A “bad” idea, when considered seriously without censoring, can suggest a “good” idea or be transformed into one.

Use brainstorming when you want a new way to deal with something. Maybe you have an old problem or situation and you want a fresh look. Or maybe you’re looking for something completely new: a new product, a new marketing idea, or a new joke.

When you are trying to come up with something completely new, standard logical analytical techniques won’t work that well. That’s because they rely on working out details of what you already know. In the cases I just mentioned, you need a fresh connection. You don’t already have a lot of solid ideas in your databanks.

(On the other hand, if you already have a lot of solid ideas, it is much more efficient to use logical analytical techniques!)

The usual method of brainstorming is presented in the box below.

Three Steps to Basic Group Brainstorming

(Adapted from Paul Sloane, The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, Kogan Page: 2003.)

1. Set a Clear Goal

  • Have a specific question to answer.
  • Set a specific target for the number of ideas to generate.
  • Set a time limit.

2. Shout Out Ideas Following Three Rules

  • Suspend Judgment. Every idea is accepted for the list. No criticism. Crazy ideas are often springboards for better ones.
  • Quantity is Good. Don’t worry about quality for now.
  • Number and Display Every Idea. Every single idea is written down so it can be viewed by the group. It is numbered so you know how close you are to the target number.

3. Analyze and Select the Best Ideas

  • Wait until you have generated the target number of ideas before analyzing.
  • After generating all the ideas, divide them into 3 groups: promising, interesting, rejected.
  • You can also categorize them in other ways for further action.

A group usually needs a facilitator to make sure everyone follows the rules.

It is essential that you separate steps 2 and 3. If you criticize an idea in step 2, you will stop making connections to it. The truth is that any idea you come up with in step 2 has the potential to suggest a better idea. That’s why you should shoot for a large number of ideas, in a short amount of time.

Moreover, you don’t want to do anything that will interfere with the idea-generating process. In Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, she reports that when she does creativity exercises, the best ideas usually are the 50th, 70th, or 100th ideas. These often build on many of the previous ideas.

Brainstorming by Yourself

The main advantage of group brainstorming is that you get a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas. People make very different associations. One person blurts out an idea that then triggers something interesting from someone else. So, this very simple process works pretty well.

If you’re brainstorming by yourself, it becomes harder. For one thing, there is no facilitator encouraging you to shout out ideas even if they are silly. The absolute basic thing you need to do when you are brainstorming by yourself: give yourself permission to have ideas that “might” work or “maybe” will do the trick. Do not require “good” ideas! Have a maybe mindset. In fact, the simplest way to brainstorm by yourself is to make a maybe list, which I explain on my blog.

At a deeper level, when you brainstorm you need to give up trying to get the answer immediately. As long as you are expecting to come up with a perfect answer by “just trying,” you will be blocked and unable to brainstorm. Instead, you need to accept the fact that you don’t know the answer, but you might have the material to put together an answer if you give it a hearing.

The other reason that brainstorming is more difficult when you are by yourself is that you’re much more likely to get stuck in a rut, and have trouble getting out of it. You likely start trying to solve the problem with some preconceptions about the answer. Without other people’s ideas to jar you out of that assumption, you can find that every idea you come up with sounds the same. The basic way to get out of a rut is to use random triggers (pictures, objects, words in a dictionary) to suggest different angles on the problem. (I explain exactly how to do this in Tap Your Own Brilliance, one of the classes available in the Thinking Lab.)

I know that brainstorming is a staple of most creativity classes, but I don’t use it much. But I use the same mindset when I do Freewriting or when I Tackle a Long-Term Issue with 3 Pages a Day. I let go having to have an answer on the first try–and give myself permission to explore the ideas that come to mind.

October 25, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Key to Brainstorming

Brainstorming means: generating a long list of creative ideas to solve some problem or answer some question. Any time you are feeling a little blank, you need some form of brainstorming to start ideas flowing again.

Often we think of brainstorming as a group activity, with these four guidelines:

1) Just blurt out ideas as they occur to you.
2) No criticism–of yourself or others. (You’ll evaluate the ideas later, after you have a long list.)
3) Try to jump off from a previous idea to get a new idea.
4) Try to generate as many ideas as possible.

People often treat brainstorming as a magical process, which mysteriously generates results. I think brainstorming is an entirely understandable process, and when you understand it, you have much more control over your own creative capacity.

To see how it works in an individual mind, consider the “dictionary” version of brainstorming, which uses these four steps:

1) Spell out the question.
2) Pick a random word from the dictionary.
3) Free associate on the word from the dictionary: what’s the first word that comes to mind?
4) Ask your subconscious for a bridge: How does the new word help answer the question?

The two creative steps are #2 and #3. In step 2, you get a concrete idea (a trigger) to think about. On the face of it, the trigger might not have any particular relevance to the question. But it is highly specific, so you can make associations to it. In step 3, you free associate on the trigger. It’s these new free associations (not the original trigger) that might help you answer your question.

Here’s why: the free associations are connected both to the trigger you chose in step 2 and the question you spelled out in step 1. Both of those are part of the context that is stimulating subconscious associations. The question influences what spontaneously occurs to you.

This is why, when you get to step 4, you can ask yourself for a bridge between the free association and the question: the free association does have some connection to the question in your subconscious databanks, and all you are doing is asking for it explicitly.

In a group brainstorming process, one person’s idea is another person’s trigger. Everyone is free associating on whatever came before–suggestion, joke, etc., and these free associations then
suggest other possible solutions.

The thing to remember is: the trigger does not have to seem useful.  It just has to be concrete enough so that you can easily free associate  about it.

This is why you should never censor in brainstorming. If you censor the trigger, you never get the free associations. If you censor the free associations, you never get to make the connection between them and the question. Or in other words, if you censor, you never get to the solutions.

You can use this process of triggering and associating in many different forms of brainstorming.

Next time you feel blank, try brainstorming with these four steps:
1) Identify question
2) Pick a concrete trigger
3) Free associate
4) Build a bridge from the free association to a solution


July 9, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

In Communication, Less is Better Than More

“Less” sounds undesirable. Who wants to settle for less when you could have more? Well, in communication, less is often much better than more.

For example, if you are offering a proposal to a prospective customer, it’s much better to offer just the top three options rather than eight possibilities. If you give too many options, you make the decision harder, distract attention away from the top options, and make it less likely that the customer will buy anything at all. That’s not good for you or the customer.

The same holds true in a report. A concisely-written page is often more valuable than a sprawling 15-page report–even if the sprawling report has more information in it. Why? Because it’s been essentialized, your reader can read it faster, and get the main points quickly, without a lot of analysis. When they read something that meanders, they have to do the summing up and integrating and prioritizing that you didn’t do for them.

Essentializing is good for the mind. We can only hold a few units in mind at any one time. When you can package your message into a few meaty units, you get clearer on your message, and your audience has to do less work to “get it.”

How do you do essentialize what you want to say? It takes extra thinking to turn a pile of ideas into a targeted message. Here are three ways to help:

1) Think about your purpose before you think about your message. Why do you want to have this conversation or write this report? Do you want the listener or reader to do something as a result? Knowing your goal can help you figure out what’s important to include versus what’s not.

2) No matter how long a piece you’re writing, or how much you’re talking, make sure you can reduce your message to its core thought. That’s a single grammatical sentence, under 15-20 words. You can think of it as the theme, or the point of the piece.

When you can pare it down to that size, you can communicate the essentials in a mind-friendly unit: a sentence. When you share that core thought, it will help organize and integrate everything  else you say.

3) Make the message more precise using differentiation. Go through your core thought, looking for places you could insert an “as opposed to ____” phrase. Then elaborate on each one. When you state explicitly what you are NOT saying, you demarcate your positive message.


July 2, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Need a Fresh Idea? Prepare to “Incubate”

Often fresh, new ideas occur to you after a period away from your work. That’s why many authorities on creativity recommend taking breaks to let this process happen.  But  just taking a break isn’t enough. How often have you come back, after a break, and been in exactly the same stuck situation as you were before?

The subconscious is not active–it can’t figure things out for you. You need to prepare your mind so the time spent away “incubating” can pay off. That means, take a few minutes to think about what kind of a solution you need.

For example, some years ago I bogged down rehearsing a new script. I knew I needed to speed up the process, but although  I took a couple of breaks, I didn’t get any new ideas.

I finally got the rehearsal process moving by doing some thinking on paper about what kind of solution I needed. I realized I was trying to combine rehearsal with editing (a bad combination–I should separate them) and that I wasn’t sure how to do the editing effectively. I needed a better way to keep track of changes for the script. Then I took a break to “incubate.”

An idea occurred to me. It may sound silly to you, but here it is: It occurred to me that I could use bigger pieces of paper to make notes on the problems. (I had been using little sticky notes.) This was exactly the encouragement I needed. I was able to settle down and go through the whole script in less time than I had wasted being stuck on just a small part of it.

What happened there? I set a very specific intention–figure out how to keep track of changes for the script. And I held it in the back of my mind (as a standing order) during my break. As I recall, when I came back to my desk I saw the little sticky notes and felt a sense of frustration–they were messy and confusing. That observed fact connected with my intention, to generate the idea of using bigger pieces of paper.

The moral of this story is: new ideas don’t come by magic. They come when you prepare for them, by describing to yourself (in whatever terms make sense) what new ideas you wish you had. When you do this, you set up a “standing order” to your subconscious. Then, as you go through your day, something you run into by chance can trigger a new connection that is just what you needed.

This is why I put “incubate” in scare quotes. I agree the phenomenon exists (as I describe it here). But most people seem to think the incubation is some magical process that happens in the subconscious. I believe all the action is in peripheral awareness–with a standing order in the background that can trigger an idea based on some fresh observation.


May 13, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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