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Better than brainstorming ideas

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Brainstorming is widely used in organizations of all sizes to generate new ideas. It is a technique that has successfully created many good new ideas.

However, the brainstorming technique has limitations because it is so unstructured. Participants are encouraged to think of ideas no matter how wild and way out they may seem, on the grounds that the ideas can later be shaped into something useable by the participants.

However, most people aren’t very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming and therefore the technique does have its limitations.

There are limitations in bringing up to 20 people together in a room for a brainstorming session. The facilitator is often the boss (whose presence makes participants reluctant to offer wildly creative, ‘silly’ ideas) or is an external person who doesn’t understand the organization. Such brainstorming sessions are usually dominated by the extraverts while the others say little. The outputs usually have limited value.

A team of current and former McKinsey consultants has developed an alternative way to create new ideas, which has been used successfully for the past ten years to help think up and develop new ideas in a wide range of industries. 1

The basic idea is to create a more defined situation by deciding the criteria and boundaries of good ideas. Spell out:

  • whether you are seeking big ideas or incremental improvements on existing concepts

  • what size the probable budget will be for developing such ideas

  • the extent of staffing and time that will be acceptable.

The first thing is to select a suitable group. You will probably have to include some people for political reasons, but you can ensure you have enough people who know the context directly and who can make a worthwhile contribution. Don’t be afraid to invite some external people such as advertising, market research and PR agencies as well as customer-facing employees. 

The approach is to select several teams of four or five participants each. One or two questions can be asked of each group every 30 minutes. In any group of four, everyone typically participates, in contrast to larger groups in which the introverts will try to hide. Put all the loud and/or pushy people in the same group. This will stop them from silencing others who they would normally dominate.

Give each group a single, highly focused task and specific ground rules. Get them to spend 20-30 minutes discussing one question and report back on the best ideas emanating from that question.

What happens typically is that the first five minutes start like any brainstorm with wildly varying quality. Then participants will return to the better ideas and refine them. The refinements are generally of a higher quality than in brainstorms.

The ideas process should take place over more than one meeting. A follow-up meeting could be held after participants go off to gather data or have some time to ruminate on the ideas.

At the appropriate session, sort out the best ideas on the spot; the selection process for ideas can be done quite quickly while the participants are still there. They respect the prompt decisiveness. Don’t worry about disappointing those whose ideas aren’t used. Most people prefer the choice to be made in front of them so they can learn from your thought process and produce better ideas next time.

The consultants say this process usually generates about 20 ideas per hour on average from a 20-person meeting.

Take note, however, that some people may not adapt easily to this change at first. Due to their previous experiences in brainstorms, they may come unprepared to participate actively, so it may take one session for them to learn to ‘go with the flow’ of the new activity. 

The consultants list 21 questions for developing new products. You can adapt these to your requirements. If you are invited to participate in ideas sessions in your organization you could review these questions to see if you could use some of them in those groups, even if your organization doesn’t use this methodology. In fact, you could ask some of these questions in executive meetings, strategic planning meetings or in departmental meetings such as marketing team meetings. They will make you look very astute!

Regardless of the 21 questions, you could start trying to use the creativity methodology in your own area to develop new solutions to some of your issues or even creative angles needed for publicity events.

‘De-average’ buyers and users

  • Which customers use or purchase our product in the most unusual way?

  • Do any customers need vastly more or less sales and service attention than most?

  • For which customers are the support costs (order entry, tracking, customer-specific design) either unusually high or unusually low?

  • Could we still meet the needs of a significant subset of customers if we stripped 25% of the hard or soft costs out of our product?

  • Who spends at least 50% of what our product costs to adapt it to their specific needs?

Explore unexpected successes

  • Who uses our product in ways we never expected or intended?

  • Who uses our product in surprisingly large quantities?

Look beyond the boundaries of our business

  • Who else is dealing with the same generic problem as we are but for an entirely different reason? How have they addressed it?

  • What major breakthroughs in efficiency or effectiveness have we made in our business that could be applied in another industry?

  • What information about customers and product use is created as a by-product of our business that could be the key to radically improving the economics of another business?

Examine binding constraints

  • What is the biggest hassle of purchasing or using our product?

  • What are some examples of ad hoc modifications that customers have made to our product?

  • For which current customers is our product least suited?

  • For what particular usage occasions is our product least suited?

  • Which customers does the industry prefer not to serve, and why?

  • Which customers could be major users, if only we could remove one specific barrier we’ve never previously considered?

Imagine perfection

  • How would we do things differently if we had perfect information about our buyers, usage, distribution channels, and so on?

  • How would our product change if it were tailored for every customer?

Revisit the premises underlying our processes and products

  • Which technologies embedded in our product have changed the most since the product was last redesigned?

  • Which technologies underlying our production processes have changed the most since we last rebuilt our manufacturing and distribution systems?

  • Which customers’ needs are shifting most rapidly? What will they be in five years?


  1. Kevin P. Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford and Renée Dye. “Breakthrough thinking from inside the box.” Retrieved from

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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