One Easy Way to Dramatically Improve Your Brainstorming

One Easy Way to Dramatically Improve Your Brainstorming
Posted in: Communications, Innovation, Life Advice

I’ve been in too many brainstorming meetings that don’t generate original ideas. There could be many reasons why. Perhaps it’s the people attending, the company culture, the environment, how the meeting starts, the facilitator or a combination of factors. I can’t cover all of these in a single blog post. Instead, I’ll focus on a way to kickoff your next brainstorming meeting that could help you generate more creative ideas.

But, before I get to that, please take no more than 30 seconds to answer this question: You’re at a construction site and you have plastic cups of water. What could you do with them? When you’re done, please continue reading below…

If you’re like me and most people, your answers are: drink the water, give water to construction workers, water the plants, throw the cups away and so on. Here are examples that most of us miss – the cups can be used to hold nails or rulers and pencils. You could use the cups to scoop out concrete mix into the small mixing pans. You could have a competition to see who can use mouth suction to keep a cup on their face the longest. If you decided to drink all the water, and there’s a long line for the Porta-John, you use the cups to . . .

Anyway, a lot could be done with cups. Heck some kids at a California Boys and Girls Club invented a game of stacking plastic cups in different formations as quickly as possible — known as sport stacking, cup stacking and speed stacking. It became a national craze complete with competitions, world records and millions of dollars in revenue for the companies that sold plastic “stacking cups.” A fine activity for lunch on a work site, and pretty fun, too – check out a little bit of the below video featuring a speed stacking world champion.

The point is to get us thinking outside of our assumptions. Asking about something that has an expected use, like cups, is a good way to start a brainstorming meeting. Typically, participants are asked to write down their answers and then a discussion follows. After that it’s good to follow-up with another question. Perhaps: What are the ways you can use a pen?

As people get into the spirit of things, you’ll get great answers like: you take it apart and use the barrel as a straw or blowgun. You can use it to breathe underwater (I wouldn’t advise trying that one. I have, and you can’t really get enough air). If you have two pens, you give one to a friend and recreate the epic battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader or put them in your mouth to look like a walrus. You can break the ink cartridge to create splatter art or take out the ink cartridge and break the pen with your hand to practice karate. It can be turned into a deadly weapon, helicopter (put a ruler on top), back scratcher, improvised finger splint, and so on.

The point is you get people to start looking at ordinary things differently, which will hopefully help the team get into the mindset of questioning our biases about how things should be done. Assumptions and the way we’ve done things tend to hold us back. They’re the natural way we think, so we need help breaking free of them.

As I mentioned in my post, How to Ask Better Questions, banks had inconvenient hours for decades. Then Commerce Bank asked an important question, “Why do banks operate the way we do?”

A cup doesn’t have to be for drinking, a bank doesn’t need to be like the rest of the banks and your business challenges don’t have to be solved the way they’ve always been solved.

When we start a new activity, we need to get our minds in gear. It’s not easy for me to jump from writing blog posts to looking at financial statements. I need to ease my mind into numbers. Instead of beginning a brainstorming by reviewing the problem, warm up your participants’ minds with questions that get them thinking differently. Or introduce other exercises that achieve the same goal. You’ll probably find that your output improves.

Do you have any suggestions for brainstorming meetings? By the way, what other uses can you think of for cups of water or a pen?

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