Getting the most out of brainstorming …

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on

Sometimes you need new ideas about how to approach something. Often under pressure, those ideas are not forthcoming. Is it because of the sense of urgency? Is because there is too much focused thinking about it? Or, do we focus on the wrong thing? It could be all three – but there may be a way to get past these obstacles.

Reframe your approach
When brainstorming, we are mostly looking for solutions to questions or problems. Maybe that is where the obstacle lies. Instead of focusing on the answer, spend more time on the question or questions to ask. In another words, brainstorm for questions!

This is not my idea. It is one proposed by Hal Gregersen from the MIT Sloan School of Management. He tried it with student brainstorming that become “stuck” while focusing on solutions. He switched the focus to questions. He widened his use of the technique to include consulting clients and over time, developed a methodology.

Gregersen claims he was influenced by work on “creative discovery through open, honest inquiry” by sociologist Parker Palmer. It may seem odd that from his exploration and creative discovery, he has developed a “system” for generating creative outcomes. There is insight in this paradox. By focusing on a different aspect of the inquiry process – that of questioning, opens up new possibilities and avenues for exploration.

… fresh questions often beget novel – even transformative – insights …
(Gregersen, 2018, p.67)

Gregersen (2018) suggests brainstorming for questions means we can avoid familiar bias traps in our thinking. We are conditioned to answer questions and find solutions. By staying in inquiry mode, we are slightly uncomfortable as a resolution has not been reached. By being in this state, exploring new ways of framing questions helps to tolerate the ambiguity.

The technique is useful for group and individual brainstorming alike. It is suggested that regular use of the approach can “foster a stronger culture of collective problem solving” (2018, p.67). Gregersen calls the technique a “question burst”.

Time for a question burst
The question burst approach has three steps:

  1. Set the stage
    * Set a challenge that you care deeply about.
    * Gather people to help you explore the challenge from different angles.
    * If possible, include some people who have a different thinking style to you or tend to take a different perspective on things.
  2. Brainstorm the questions
    * Set a timer and spend four minutes collectively generating as many questions as possible about the challenge.
    * Don’t allow push-back on anyone’s questions. The more surprising and provocative they are, the better.”
    * Record every question exactly as formed. Try to get at least 15.
  3. Identify a quest – and commit to it
    * On your own, study the list of questions.
    * Look at the ones that suggest new pathways.
    * Choose a few that intrigue, seem different or perhaps uncomfortable.
    * Expand these into their own sets of follow-on questions.
    * Consider using a series of why questions such as:
      – Why the question you chose seemed important or meaningful
      – Why the reason you gave (above) was important or
    – Why it’s a sticking point …
    and so on
    *Commit to pursuing one of the pathways that you have opened up.
    * Set aside comfortable, easy to implement considerations and go for the ones that will really get the outcome you want.
    * Identify what it will take to get that done.
    * Make an action plan for concrete actions that YOU will take in the next couple of weeks, to find potential solutions suggested by the new questions.

How does it work?
Posing questions is less daunting than proposing solutions. Because of that, you are more likely to get contributions from everyone – not just the more dominant or confident group members. This is further enhanced by establishing the two ground rules for the exercise:

  • Only questions can be contributed.
  • No preambles or justifications that frame questions are allowed.

By limiting the time available and emphasising the need for lots of questions means that are kept short, simple and fresh. The time limit helps to keep people on the task of generating questions only. There is also no time for explanations or qualifications.

Questions facilitate thinking. They provoke us to seek a solution. They challenge us to solve the puzzle. In their multiplicity, they generate thought and energy for a topic, especially when the emphasis is on gathering a volume and variety of questions rather than value-laden solutions.

Give it a try
It is suggested that you should go three rounds of question bursts on any one issue. Though it can be used as a one-off activity, an iterative approach allows for a deeper dive into the challenge at hand. 

Will you give it a try?

Source: Gregerson, Hal. 2018. “Better Brainstorming: Focus on questions not answers, for breakthrough insights” in Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018, p.64-71.

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