An influential member of your team says, “Oh, we should brainstorm this,” and you can feel your heart sink. Brainstorming can seem safe, because no one person gets blamed for coming up with a bad idea. Still, it doesn’t always feel very productive, and often it’s just not very much fun. A few people may end up dominating the session, or ideas may not be that good, or you can definitely think of a better way to use the time in your overcrowded schedule.
Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack, authors of The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking suggest three ways to come up with good thinking.
The Ambassador Method
Divide the team in half—no need for each half to be equal in size—and put each half in a separate room. Team 1 members write their ideas down without discussion among themselves. Team 2 does a traditional brainstorm.
After 5–15 minutes, each team gests 5–10 minutes to organize its ideas. Team 1 can speak at this point. Then each team chooses an ambassador to present its ideas to the other group. That way, each team has the opportunity to both talk and listen, which Ms. Fox Cabane and Mr. Pollack describe as helping “light up different part of the brain and get more of the mind’s creative engine running.”
Ambassadors—and anyone who wants to switch rooms—then return to their rooms. Note that diminishing returns tend to set in after three iterations.
Fox Cabane and Pollack note that traditional brainstorming tends to bind our brains’ creative flow, because our ideas need time to percolate and “our creativity doesn’t run on a timetable like a train.”
The Sleepover Method
Start with a traditional brainstorming session for 30 to 60 minutes and give the notes to everyone, including those who couldn’t attend. Ask everyone to take the notes home, read them, and sleep on them. The next morning, give everyone 15 minutes to write down any new ideas they had. Then share the new ideas with everyone.
The reason? Our brains work when we sleep. A lot. When nodding off and waking up, they communicate clearly with our conscious minds.
The Strolling Method
As with the sleepover method, the entire team gets the notes and then goes out for a walk. (30 to 45 minutes is optimal.) Then everyone comes back together to discuss what occurred to them during the walk.
Walking is perfect because you get enough exercise to pump oxygenated blood into your brain, and your muscles don’t get it all. Walking “gives the executive part of your brain a task so it stays out of the way and lets you enter a state of mind-wandering.” (Hence creativity.)
When you think about it, we use these methods in our personal lives. We sleep on things. We write things ideas down in journals, we solicit the ideas of others—often several others. The idea of codifying the process seems supremely sound to me. I like the idea of explaining the methodologies in advance of putting it to work, so that teams are receptive and even eager to try them out.