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Compartmentalize: Brainstorm Like a School Lunch Tray

Most brainstorm sessions start with the meeting lead proclaiming, “Okay guys… think out of the box and remember, there are no bad ideas!”

We say “there are no bad ideas” before we brainstorm the same way we say “bless you” after someone sneezes. No one is sure why anymore, but it is polite.

For sneezing? We used to believe when someone sneezed good spirits left their body. Our quick prayer “God Bless You” put them back.

For brainstorming? Saying “there are no bad ideas” is the reminder to not immediately judge and filter out what you may think is a bad idea.

Our brains are wired for quick categorization and judgement. It goes back to our caveman days when we didn’t have time to assess the large-toothed, giant-clawed creature trotting our way. We needed to instantly categorize “danger” and judge “run fast!” These are our basic reflex and memory systems.

When brainstorming – instead of seeing a new idea as new – we instinctively try to find a category for it. This reflex often delivers two categorized responses:

  • “we already did that” (i.e. it is old, not new), or
  • “we already tried that (i.e. it didn’t work).

Seems all we can come up with are old or failed ideas.

So what?

For starters, kindly asking your team to remember there are no bad ideas is not the solution. You need something more rigorous and shifting than that. A method to force us into separating idea generation from judgement – at least for a brief period.

Okay, we get that people are good a quashing ideas… But, how do you change this habit?

Here are two methods…

1) Edward’s Six Hats

In his book Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono offers a method for breaking the thinking process into phases. He suggests six different roles or hats, each with a different perspective. White (facts and figures), Red (emotional), Black (caution/devil’s advocate), Yellow (positive), Green (new ideas), and Blue (organization).

Very simply put, the objective is to have the team wear one hat at a time. Green hat “new ideas” is different from Black hat “caution.” Six Thinking Hats offers you and your team a language and rules to follow for better brainstorming and problem solving.

If different hats aren’t distinct enough “compartments” for your team, perhaps try a method Walt Disney would use.

2) Walt’s Three Rooms

This is sometimes called the Disney Brainstorming Method. (I wrote about it in March of ’12). Walt Disney would often approach idea generation in three phases:

  1. The Dreamer,
  2. The Realist, and
  3. The Spoiler.

The Dreamer would come up with as many ideas as possible. The Realist would assess the ideas to sense which were good, and which should be “plussed” or improved. Finally, the Spoiler would look for potential problems and what could go wrong. (I like to consider the spoiler phase ‘bullet proofing’ an idea).

Moreover, Walt would use three different rooms in his house… one for each thinking phase. For example, the Den for Dreaming, The Dining Room for Realist, and the Kitchen to be the Spoiler. (I made the rooms up, I can’t find documentation which room he used for which).

Changing physical space can be effective as it clearly dilineates where you are in the process. If we’re in the Realist space, we are no longer creating new things. Rather, seeing how we can make the new ideas better. (Of course, capture new ideas if they DO come up in any stage – you don’t want to lose them. However, the focus of Realist is plussing and building).

In the Spoiler stage, we’re looking for flaws, not new ideas or even solutions. (Once you finish the Spoiler stage, I recommend you return to the Dreamer space with the newly broken ideas that still seem promising and think-up fixes or new versions of those ideas.

Walt’s idea is appealing to workspace or home. You can equip and theme each room with artifacts and stimuli that help with that particular process. Paint a blue sky ceiling in the Dreaming room. Fill the spoiler room with scales and devices of measurement. Also, once you get into the habit of using the rooms for each purpose, if you simply need to critique and idea… head to the spoiler room. Want to plus something? Pop into the Realist space for 30-minutes.

Similar to school lunch trays, each item has its own defined, compartmentalized space. Idea-meisters will be happy there is a place for their fresh thoughts. Builders will have their time. Spoilers can relax, confident their pessimistic view will have their space.

Experienced challenges with your team (or personally) allowing free flow of new ideas without judgement and filtering? Try one of these two approaches.

What other methods have you tried that have worked for you?

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