Why brainstorming never seems to work—and MIT’s 4-minute solution

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Why brainstorming never seems to work—and MIT’s 4-minute solution

In a typical brainstorming session, you gather a team of experts to solve a problem during an informal, loosely structured discussion, which you hope will nurture innovative ideas.

But the traditional method can actually stifle creativity and original thought. Group dynamics like “social loafing” lead some participants to coast by on others’ contributions, and the fear of being judged renders other participants mute.

There’s a better way, according to Hal Gregersen, executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Leadership Center. Gregersen has spent years experimenting and refining the brainstorming process with companies like Disney and Amazon. Gregersen outlines a three-step process for brainstorming questions for Harvard Business Review.

How to lead a brainstorm

Before: Choose a challenge and your participants

First, choose a challenge that “makes your heart beat fast,” says Brad Smith, the chief executive at Intuit. Then, invite participants who will consider the problem from fresh angles. Look for coworkers who have no direct experience with the problem or who see things differently than you, recommends Gregersen.

You may worry that discussing your challenges will make you seem incapable. But the old adage holds true: three—or more—heads is better than one. Once the stage is set, take two minutes to describe the problem and briefly explain why you’re stuck.

During: Brainstorm questions, not answers

Brainstorm leaders usually ask participants to come up with potential solutions to a problem. But you should actually ask them to think of questions, argues Gregersen. A question-focused brainstorm recasts problems in new ways and pushes people to think more creatively, according to his survey of 1,500 global leaders.

4 minutes

is the optimal amount of time to brainstorm questions

Spell out the rules to your team: 1) you can only brainstorm questions, 2) don’t qualify your questions, and 3) don’t criticize others’ contributions. Then, set a timer for four minutes and generate as many questions as possible.

Under a time crunch, participants will feel more pressure to throw out as many questions as possible and will have less time to overthink their ideas. Try to uncover 15 questions, and write down every question verbatim.

After: Answer one question

Study the questions your team brainstormed and make note of the ones that intrigue you, make you feel uncomfortable, or reframe the problem in a useful way. Then, choose one question to answer and lay out concrete next steps to find solutions (Gregersen, Harvard Business Review, 4/23/18).

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