Manufacturing Eureka

I'm a big believer in tools and techniques for thinking outside the box. I would like to introduce these ideas at our Monday meeting at Rojo; you might find them useful in your own organization or personal thought processes.

When most groups get together to brainstorm they make two big mistakes. First, they mix together the creation of new ideas with the act of judging them. Second, dysfunctional group dynamics occur as people either only throw out their own ideas and don't listen to others or are too shy or scared to share their own concepts. Instead of the group catalyzing and synthesizing each others ideas the group fizzles.

It is important to have permission to unconditionally create and explore ideas in all directions, as well as to hold a skeptical mindset and winnow down ideas. However, most people mix these two acts together or only live out of one mindset. The creation of new concepts and the judging and contraction of the pool of ideas are two very different mental places and must be seperated or you will get the worst of both. In practice this works as follows; divide the brainstorming phase into two parts. In the first phase any idea is permissible; the point is to explore the space of possibilities, even if it has nothing to do with what your core point is (you never know when some wild tangent might snake back and inspire your original goal). In the second phase you bring out the judge; you place all of the created ideas on a whiteboard and winnow them down, collapsing them together, pointing out inconsistencies and impossibilities. While the first phase expands the pool of ideas, the second phase attempts to collapse it, ruthlessly.

During the brainstorming phase, if you are not careful, you will run into all sorts of nasty group dynamics. Sometimes people just shout their own ideas, failing to build and expand on the pool of ideas, or folks freeze up and get scared or embarrassed to share their ideas. This is especially true if the group is large.

To protect again this, I like to turn the brainstorming phase into a nonverbal process. Everyone gets a stack of index cards and sits in a circle. When anyone in the group gets an idea they simply write it down on the index card and then hand it to the person on their left. That person can then either build on the idea by adding in their own stuff or pass it to the person on their left. Since the group is in a circle the original idea will then make its way to the originator, who can continue the process. At any time a large number of index cards can be making their way through the group. If someone has a new inspiration they simply silently write their idea down on another index card and put it back into the flow.

The great thing about this process is that it gets around the group dysfunction I talked about earlier. Folks who only spout their own ideas are forced to build on other's suggestions as the index cards go through; they are also empowered to write their own ideas on new index cards at any time. Individuals who are too shy or embarassed don't have to speak in front of a group of people.

In the judging phase the index cards are then layed out on a table and winnowed down.

What do you believe are the best ways to come up with killer ideas?

[My buddy Michael, who I work with here at Rojo, just told me that in high school he took part in very similar exercises]