Brainstorming: Breaking Through the Wall of Mediocrity

Brick wall with a funny face sculpted on one brick

Image by Stephen Boisvert

Brainstorming is the best technique for generating great ideas.

Brainstorming is the worst technique for generating great ideas.

Both sentences can be accurate depending on the methods used to conduct a brainstorming session. However, there’s one technique (perhaps mindset is the better word) that can improve your results. It’s something that Tim Hurson of thinkx calls the ‘third third’.

Brainstorming Has a Bad Reputation

We’ve already had a good discussion about brainstorming here on Lateral Action, with lots of smart ideas suggested by our readers. We discussed a few key criticisms of brainstorming:

  • Not enough good ideas
  • Lack of critical filters
  • Inhibition
  • Freeloading
  • Taking turns
  • Groupthink

Groups Do Generate Fantastic Ideas

Despite the criticisms, it seems obvious that groups do generate good ideas, or at a minimum they do help refine them to the point of making them actionable. After all, corporations and organizations do some pretty amazing things and it’s just not possible for all of them to be one-person armies. Consumer products, charitable organizations and other endeavors may be driven by a single guiding mind, but they have to rely on teams to get into the nitty gritty, solve problems and execute plans.

Focus on Getting the Best Idea

Let’s assume that we can somehow surmount the dangers of human psychology and sociology. You manage to assemble a smart team of people with a mixture of backgrounds and each person has sufficient self-awareness and emotional intelligence to work cooperatively. Moreover, let’s also assume that they understand the pitfalls of brainstorming and have decent guidance.

The remaining problem is getting to the best ideas. One of the discouraging things about the brainstorming process is that the road to the best ideas is paved with the corpses of good, mediocre and downright awful ideas. These results will dampen most people’s enthusiasm. How can you get to the best ideas when everything that comes out during most of the process is utter garbage?

The answer is simple: that’s a part of the process.

Getting to the ‘Third Third’ in Brainstorming

In his book Think Better, Tim Hurson writes about techniques for productive thinking, which is a key skill needed for lateral action. One of the key points that he covers is the miracle of the third third. Let’s say that you have a brainstorming session and you’re aiming for 100 ideas. Studies have shown that the ideas generated in well run brainstorming sessions will typically conform to the following characteristics:

The first third (up to idea 33) of the ideas will tend to be obvious picks. They’ll be mundane and they won’t have anything new or interesting.

The second third (roughly between idea 34 and 67) will start to become interesting as your brain has to start thinking more creatively to come up with new ideas. You’ll start to get some good ideas amongst the mediocre, but they’ll still be based on prior knowledge and experience.

Around the time that you complete the second third, your brain will hit a mental wall. It’s going to feel extremely difficult to come up with new ideas.

This is a good thing!

If you have exhausted the obvious and not-so-obvious ideas, you’re naturally going to have to think creatively to come up with new ideas. Your brain will have to force connections between things that doesn’t seem to be connected to develop new ideas. You may have to combine motor oil and brassieres or goldfish and golf clubs in new and unusual ways to proceed forward (these are, of course, just different examples of new combinations of things – please don’t try this at home).

In Hurson’s view, the process of emptying out your mind during the first two-thirds of the brainstorming exercise clears out the mundane gunk and gives your brain room to think.

If we use the analogy of marathon running for a moment, you may feel like you’ve ‘hit the wall’ at this point and you can’t push ahead any further.

That’s exactly where you want to be. It sets you up for the ‘third third’:

In the third third (ideas 68 – 100), you have the best chance to come up with the really unusual, innovative and unexpected ideas. When you exhaust the obvious, the much less obvious ideas have room to emerge. You may still get some bad ideas or completely unworkable ideas (the latter is a highly likely occurrence, but it is normal). However, your brain may surprise you and come up with something so different and appealing that you’ll be glad you persisted. Even if you don’t immediately get the final idea, you may find a breadcrumb or clue to an awesome idea.

You Only Need One Great Idea

Like many things, there are no guarantees of success. Much like a baseball player who fails to get on base more than 60% of the time (most fail 70% of the time, or worse), you may not get the great idea that you are looking for through brainstorming, at least not on the first try. Brainstorming is a skill that requires patience, effort and practice to develop.

However, athletes go with best practices to maximize their chances for success. They may fail a lot of the time, but their best chance for success is to stick to what works.

If you go for the third third, your percentage of success may be worse than a baseball slugger. Out of 100 ideas, 99 of them may be worthless.

But sometimes all you need is one stellar idea, a mental home run, to win the game.

What Do You Think?

Have you had positive experiences with brainstorming?

Do you regularly go for the third third?

About the author: Mark Dykeman is the founder and main brain of Thoughtwrestling, a blog devoted to helping you with creativity, creative thinking, idea generation techniques, problem solving and getting things done. For more great ideas, follow Mark on Twitter.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. I’ve definitely gotten to the second third in a group – it’s easy to give up at this point when it gets hard.

    I’ve found that there is a period of reflection needed at this time – the person in the corner who has been unusually quiet often comes up with that third third right around the time most of us want to leave the room and go get a cup of coffee. It’s a good lesson in patience – make sure everyone gets a chance to think and have their say – don’t give up when it gets hard.

  2. One of the business services I offer is “brainstorming.” Basically, it’s just what I call my consulting services to make “consulting” sound a little less intimidating. But I find it captures what I can do for people really well.

    In terms of your post, I help people break past the second third into the third third. I push and push and push them past conventional ideas and into the realm of downright crazy and then explain how to make that work for them.

    I think that having someone on the “other side” of the third third is a great way to help you move past the mediocrity that can be a part of conventional brainstorming.

    Thanks for this great post!

  3. This is such a good reminder to keep going in the process. I’m all too eager to find a solution and say, “Voila!” I’m in brainstorming mode right now and keep letting things sift and settle and develop. I find that yoga classes are a great place to feel and see new ideas emerge.

    Thanks, Mark, for the great reminder about brainstorming well and deeply!

  4. I brainstorm alot by myself, using the “clustering” technique on paper that is the original technique mind-mapping was derived from. That generates one set of ideas that morph again as I start translating those grape clusters of ideas into words on screen, which can go through several more morphs. Not quite the list process you describe but the process is the same.

    But to your point, I learned from a coach to challenge myself to come up with more than 20 new ideas to solving a thorny problem. As you say, the first third – the usual suspects – are easy. The next group is much harder, but somewhere near the end of the next group there can be an “aha” moment where the brain makes new connections and the third third has very different ideas from the first two groups.

    I think your “third third” concept applies in other ways to the process of creating new ideas. I’m working on a product strategy and I presented the second version to my mastermind group last week. They pointed out that I was missing a product that gave people the ability to see the overall approach to the problem, which I initially argued against since I was pretty attached to my approach.

    After a few days thinking I see they were right and I’m now working on the third revision, which is focused more on where customers are coming from than where I think they should start.

    So thanks for reminding me of the power of the third third! Very spot on article.

  5. I can’t say that I regularly “go for the third third”. This is actually the first I time I have heard the term, but it makes perfect sense.

    I’ve brainstormed with a lot of groups and individual clients, and the advice of this post is on target. The known gets regurgitated first, then, after much deliberation, the great ideas start to come out. Even after a great idea is settled on, I always let it ruminate so I can keep thinking of ways to make it better.

    Sometimes just a few extra minutes will help tremendously in idea development. One other tip: when brainstorming with a group, at the end of the session (whether you have a final idea or not), have the group keep notecards handy to write down ideas that come after the session. Follow up to see if any new angles work better.

  6. In my classes, especially, THE ART OF COLLABORATION, we combine brainstorming with a large group mind map. This offers a multidimensional
    visual record of all the ideas and combines layers of logical and intuitive
    associations.

  7. Hello everyone!

    @Alex – interesting point about a period of reflection… do you ever lose energy or participants?

    @Tara – that sounds like fun work!

    @Cynthia – do you think that yoga gives the subconscious a chance to do its work?

    @Marsha – you’re welcome – I think that Tim Hurson really hit it on the head when he wrote about the “third third” concept.

    @Jason – definitely agree on the wisdom of making sure that the group members have materials to capture their own ideas

    @Sara – I’m a big fan of mind mapping and brainstorming, so I really like the idea of combining the two!

  8. There is a popular notion that creativity as
    being something like brainstorming, lateral
    thinking or ideation. Today creativity
    must go beyond mere idea generation,
    brain storming is inherently defined
    by the number of ideas generated,
    ( a third being useful) it is a useful tool
    but not the best tool. Improvisation
    is the new tool that is most useful
    and dramatic.

  9. Although I don’t do much of brainstorming, this article has helped me see the great benefits it offers. Will make it a habit. Thank you Mark for this useful reminder.

  10. I had no idea about this 3 third way of thinking. Also i found the marathon wall being a good metaphor.
    I’m a musician and write mostly my songs and ideas by myself, as it’s getting messing sorting that out in rehearsal, but worth giving a try…
    I don’t know if you have a topic about self-brainstorming, or i heard from Marsha Stopa the “Clustering” if anybody can help for that I’d be gratefull.
    Also i had the same thought as Alex, about having some thinking time before hitting the third third.
    Thx for this post i loved it.

  11. Re reflection time for hitting the third third, one thing that has been pointed out to me, (as an extrovert!) is that the extroverts and talkers can end up dominating a brainstorming session.

    I’ve heard somewhere that most of us talkers can’t stand more than a few seconds of silence in a room, whereas the introverts tend to wait at least 7 seconds before speaking up.

    So giving even a few minutes of reflection or silence can allow the quieter people to get their thoughts out, and they’re often the best thoughts in the room.

  12. I like the period of reflection idea Alex, it’s always a good way to come up with more ideas 🙂 Brainstorming really does work (some of the time!)
    This is slightly off the topic (sorry), but sometimes like to do things completely different from brainstorming. Given brainstorming usually doesn’t carry a sense of urgency, I don’t think people think at their best.
    I like do have what I call “acute capacity challenges” to solve problems, but also measure organisational capacity to solve those problems. Basically, you enforce an artificially short timeframe to come up with the best solution possible. Great ideas come out under pressure, if you’ve ever seen Apollo 13 you’ll know what I mean!

  13. In my experience the smaller and handpicked the group the better …

    Brainstorming is about stamina and desire, it’s the hunt for that one idea that fuels the drive, being on a deadline helps at times, nothing more satisfying that producing good stuff under a tight deadline!

    Good topic 🙂

  14. back in 2005 I’ve attended a Master and one of the courses was about comunication, done in active way, with games and experiences.
    One of the “games” was brainstorming. We had to figure out how to act on a desert island having only a lot of… bricks.
    The teacher explained us rules of brainstorming, including the “third third rule”, and the game started.
    Not only it was really fun, it was love at first sight for me.

    Since that course I use brainstorming to find good ideas for my creations, especially if I need a good idea to do a piece for a show or contest.

    I do brainstorming in my mind, but sometimes, when I really haven’t any idea, I take paper, pen, and say to my husband “let’s do brainstorming”.
    unfortunately he hates that so he usually reply “SGRUNT” but he’s so nice to give me few ideas.

  15. I’ve never been a big fan of brainstorming, either personally or in a group. Personally, my best ideas always come when I’m not thinking about the problem. With a group, I’ve found that visuals, such as the mind mapping Sara mentioned, inspire more ideas than words.

    However, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation that took brainstorming to the “third third,” which may explain my bias. I think you’ve hit on one big reason most brainstorming sessions fail to deliver! I’ll have to give it another try.