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
- Taking turns
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.