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How to: Better Brainstorming

Author: Hal Gregersen Source: Harvard Business Review

The Problem

Great innovators have always known that the key to unlocking a better answer is to ask a better question—one that challenges deeply held assumptions. Yet most people don’t do that, even when brainstorming, because it doesn’t come naturally. As a result, they tend to feel stuck in their search for fresh ideas.

The Solution

By brainstorming for questions instead of answers, you can create a safe space for deeper exploration and more-powerful problem solving. This brief exercise in reframing—which helps you avoid destructive group dynamics and biases that can thwart breakthrough thinking—often reveals promising new angles and unexpected insights.

About 20 years ago I was leading a brainstorming session in one of my MBA classes, and it was like wading through oatmeal. We were talking about something that many organizations struggle with: how to build a culture of equality in a male-dominated environment. Though it was an issue the students cared about, they clearly felt uninspired by the ideas they were generating. After a lot of discussion, the energy level in the room was approaching nil. Glancing at the clock, I resolved to at least give us a starting point for the next session.

“Everyone,” I improvised, “let’s forget about finding answers for today and just come up with some new questions we could be asking about this problem. Let’s see how many we can write down in the time we have left.” The students dutifully started to throw out questions, and I scribbled them on a chalkboard, redirecting anybody who started to suggest an answer. To my surprise, the room was quickly energized. At the end of the session, people left talking excitedly about a few of the questions that had emerged—those that challenged basic assumptions we had been making. For instance: Were there grassroots efforts we could support, rather than handing down rules from the top? And: What could we learn from pockets within our own organization that had achieved equality, instead of automatically looking elsewhere for best practices? Suddenly, there was much more to discuss, because we had opened up unexpected pathways to potential solutions.

Brainstorming for questions, not answers, wasn’t something I’d tried before. It just occurred to me in that moment, probably because I had recently been reading sociologist Parker Palmer’s early work about creative discovery through open, honest inquiry. But this technique worked so well with the students that I began experimenting with it in consulting engagements, and eventually it evolved into a methodology that I continue to refine. By now I’ve used it with hundreds of clients, including global teams at Chanel, Danone, Disney, EY, Fidelity, Genentech, Salesforce, and dozens of other companies; nonprofit organizations; and individual leaders I’ve coached.

Underlying the approach is a broader recognition that fresh questions often beget novel—even transformative—insights. Consider this example from the field of psychology: Before 1998 virtually all well-trained psychologists focused on attacking the roots of mental disorders and deficits, on the assumption that well-being came down to the absence of those negative conditions. But then Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association, and he reframed things for his colleagues. What if, he asked in a speech at the APA’s annual meeting, well-being is just as driven by the presence of certain positive conditions—keys to flourishing that could be recognized, measured, and cultivated? With that question, the positive psychology movement was born.

Brainstorming for questions rather than answers makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory. We’ve seen this dynamic in academic studies—in social psychologist Adam Galinsky’s research on the power of reframing during times of transition, for instance. Yet lingering in a questioning mode doesn’t come naturally to most people, because we’re conditioned from an early age to just keep the answers coming.

The methodology I’ve developed is essentially a process for recasting problems in valuable new ways. It helps people adopt a more creative habit of thinking and, when they’re looking for breakthroughs, gives them a sense of control. There’s actually something they can do other than sit and wait for a bolt from the blue. Here, I’ll describe how and why this approach works. You can use it anytime you (in a group or individually) are feeling stuck or trying to imagine new possibilities. And if you make it a regular practice in your organization, it can foster a stronger culture of collective problem solving and truth seeking.

What Process Should We Follow?

Over the years I have tested variations of this brainstorming process—I now call it a “question burst”—and collected and analyzed participant data and feedback to gauge what works best. I’ve experimented with different group sizes, time allotments, and numbers of questions; impromptu versus scheduled sessions; various modes of capturing ideas; and greater and lesser amounts of coaching (on, for example, what constitutes a “good” question and how to make creative leaps in thinking). I’ve done temperature checks in sessions and conducted surveys after them, looking for the effects of each variation. Over time the question burst has settled into a standard format, which consists of three steps:

1. Set the stage.

To begin, select a challenge you care deeply about. Perhaps you’ve suffered a setback or you have a vague sense of an intriguing opportunity. How do you know it’s ripe for a breakthrough question? It’s probably a good candidate if it “makes your heart beat fast,” as Intuit’s chairman and CEO, Brad Smith, put it to me. You’ll give it your full attention and want to engage others in thinking about it.

Brainstorming for questions makes it easier to venture into uncharted territory.

Invite a few people to help you consider that challenge from fresh angles. Though you can do this exercise on your own, bringing others into the process will give you access to a wider knowledge base and help you maintain a constructive mindset. As Ned Hallowell says in Driven to Distraction at Work (which was based on his decades of research on how to sustain productive attention), worry “feasts on a solitary victim.” When you ask others to participate in a question burst, you’re making yourself vulnerable by sharing the problem—but you’re also summoning empathy, which fosters idea generation, as we’ve learned from design thinking. And you engage others in the cause in a nonthreatening way.

It’s best to include two or three people who have no direct experience with the problem and whose cognitive style or worldview is starkly different from yours. They will come up with surprising, compelling questions that you would not, because they have no practiced ways of thinking about the problem and no investment in the status quo. They’re more likely to ask third-rail questions and point to elephants in the room—they don’t know not to.

In traditional brainstorming—the kind that focuses on generating answers—individuals perform better than groups, on average. That’s because powerful group dynamics such as “social loafing” (coasting on others’ contributions) and social anxiety (fears about how one’s ideas will be judged) can hinder original thinking and stifle the voices of introverted members. But the question burst methodology, by design, reverses many of those destructive dynamics by prompting people to depart from their usual habits of social interaction. For one thing, it creates a safe space for anyone, including a quieter person, to offer a different perspective. Because a question burst doesn’t demand that anyone instantly assert a point of view, people often feel more comfortable speaking up. The sole focus on questions also suspends the automatic rush to provide an answer—and ultimately helps expand the problem space for deeper exploration.

Once you’ve gathered your partners for this exercise, give yourself just two minutes to lay out the problem for them. People often believe that their problems require detailed explanations, but quickly sharing the challenge forces you to frame it in a high-level way that doesn’t constrain or direct the questioning. So just hit the highlights. Try to convey how things would change for the better if the problem were solved. And briefly say why you are stuck—why it hasn’t already been solved.


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