How to improve brainstorming? Focus on questions, not answers, for breakthrough discoveries
Summary: Great innovators have long known the secret to finding the best
the answer lies in asking a better question. Applying this understanding to brainstorming exercises can greatly improve the search for new ideas, especially when the team is stuck. Brainstorming based on questions rather than answers helps avoid group dynamics that often stifle voices and allows you to reframe problems in a way that encourages breakthrough thinking.
Below are excerpts from articles by Hal Gregersen.
Prepare the soil
First, choose a problem that is really important to you. Question-based brainstorming makes it easy to travel into uncharted territory. Invite several people to help you look at the problem from new perspectives. Although you can do this exercise alone, involving others will give you access to a wider knowledge base and help you maintain a constructive mindset. It is best to include two or three people in the process who do not have direct experience with the problem and whose cognitive style or view of the world is radically different from yours. They will be able to suggest surprising, powerful questions that you might not have come up with because they have no established ways of thinking about your problem and no commitment to the status quo. They tend to ask uncomfortable questions and point out obvious problems—they don’t know what not to do.
In traditional brainstorming – because it is focused on generating answers – individual work on average outperforms group work. That’s because powerful group dynamics such as “social inertia” (trying to ride on others’ achievements) and social anxiety (fear of having one’s ideas evaluated) can inhibit original thinking and stifle the voices of introverted members. However, the question generation technique, by design, overcomes many of these disruptive dynamics by encouraging people to deviate from their normal social interaction skills.
Because question generation doesn’t require someone to immediately express an opinion, people often feel more comfortable speaking up. Focusing on the questions also suspends the automatic rush to answer—and ultimately helps expand the problem space for deeper exploration.
After you have gathered your partners for this exercise, assign
only two minutes to explain the problem to them.
People often believe that their problems require detailed explanations, but the need to quickly share a problem forces you to articulate it at a high level that does not limit or direct the question. So just touch on the main points. Try to convey how the situation will change for the better if the problem is solved. And briefly tell why you are stuck – why it hasn’t happened before
Not all questions are of equal value
Not all questions have the same potential. To increase your chances of getting a question, keep these principles in mind:
Traditional divergent thinking techniques (such as making random associations or using an alternate personality) can help discover new
questions and, ultimately, new perspectives.
Questions are most productive when they are open instead of closed, short instead of long, and simple instead of complex.
Descriptive questions (what works? what doesn’t? why?) are better preceded by speculative ones (what if? what could be? why not?).
Moving from simple questions to more complex ones that require creative synthesis produces the best results in breakthrough thinking.
Questions are annoying and distracting when they don’t go beyond what the group wants to achieve.
Questions are toxic when they are asked aggressively, put people in a dead end, cause unreasonable doubts in their ideas.
Before giving the floor to your group, make two critical rules clear: First, people can only contribute questions. Those who try to offer solutions or answer other people’s questions will be stopped by you, the host of the session. And secondly, prefaces or justifications that frame the question are not allowed, because they will lead the listeners to perceive the problem in a certain way – this is exactly what you are trying to avoid.
Now set a timer and spend the next four minutes collectively generating as many questions as possible about the problem. As with all brainstorming, don’t allow objections to anyone’s input. The more surprising and provocative the questions are, the better.
By challenging the group to generate as many questions as possible in the allotted time—try to reach at least 15—you’re forcing them to keep them short, simple, and fresh. Write down each question verbatim on paper, laptop or tablet, not on the board, to record everything. And ask the group members to monitor your honesty. Otherwise, you may be unconsciously censoring yourself by pushing back lines of inquiry that you don’t immediately understand or don’t want to hear. Add your questions to the mix as you record.
Evaluate the result and accept it
Self-study the questions you’ve written down, looking for those that offer new avenues. About 80% of the time, this exercise generates at least one question that usefully reframes the problem and offers a new angle for solving it. Pick a few that interest you, seem different from how you’ve approached things before, or even make you feel a little uncomfortable.
Now try expanding on these few questions in your sets of related or follow-up questions. A classic way to do this is the sequence of “five whys”. Ask yourself why the question you chose seemed important or meaningful. Then ask why the problem you just discussed is important, or why it’s a problem at all. And so on. By better understanding why the problem is really important and what obstacles you may face in solving it, you strengthen your determination and ability to do something about it and further expand the territory of possible solutions.
In the end, be sure to commit to exploring at least one new path you see – and do so as a seeker of truth. Set aside considerations of what might be more comfortable or easier to implement, and instead adopt an innovator’s focus on “the work to be done” and what it takes to solve the problem. Develop a short-term action plan: What concrete steps will you personally take in the next three weeks to find potential solutions suggested by your new questions?
The point here is that coming up with questions that challenge assumptions is important, but never sufficient. An action plan and next steps can clarify the problem and pave the way for change.
Make it a habit
Asking questions is an innate behavior that is actively suppressed and turned off. The method of generating questions requires minimal time expenditure. This is an effective way to fresh perspectives and creativity. The process will also get easier the more you do it. When people increase their engagement in issues for the first time with this approach, it seems strange because it doesn’t fit the established norms at work and in life. From childhood, they were taught not to ask questions.
At the end of the day, people have to take responsibility for what happens next. Few things are more annoying than a colleague who just asks a question. People need to take responsibility for exploring the avenues opened up by these questions and finding valuable answers. This is especially important for leaders. The rest take their example in when, where, how and why to challenge the status quo. They should take the time to help gather and analyze new, better, and better information. It is a sign of responsibility when leaders take it upon themselves. It shows others that leadership is committed to creating a future where issues matter.