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These vital, creative questions are better than brainstorming

01 Jun, 2020 Creativity and innovation

If you are a little jaded about the value of brainstorming, you will be pleased to learn that vital, creative questions are better than brainstorming for starting some great new initiatives. Brainstorming is widely used in organizations of all sizes to generate 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 basis that the ideas can later be shaped into something usable 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 a team of 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.

New approach widely adaptable in different industries

A team of top management consultants developed an alternative way to create new ideas, which has been used successfully to help think up and develop new ideas in a wide range of industries. The consultants conceived the viewpoint that creative questions are better than brainstorming. These have stood the test of time, and are summarized in the 2007 Harvard Business Review article (subscription access) “Breakthrough thinking from inside the box,” by Coyne, Clifford & Dye.

You can refer to some of these vital questions directly in executive committee meetings and other meetings with senior management. These are whole-of-business questions, so you will look extremely wise if you raise them in the presence of organizational leaders. In addition, you can adapt some of the  questions to help with creative insights for your PR strategies.

Decide the criteria and boundaries

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.

Select teams, task and ground rules

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 4 or 5 participants each. One or two questions can be asked of each group every 30 minutes. In any group of 4, 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 5 minutes start like any brainstorm with wildly varying quality. Then participants will turn to the better ideas and refine them. The refinements are generally of a higher quality than in brainstorms.

More than one meeting

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 follow-up 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.

“Sleep on it”

One of the best things you can do in managing the process for generating creative ideas is to insert time for ideas to develop in the minds of participants, especially when they can “sleep on it.” Research has proven that concepts develop in people’s minds while they are asleep. So build in at least some overnight time, and perhaps even longer, for participants to ruminate on creative angles. You can read my article, “Increase your creativity by allowing your sleeping brain to work on it“,  for further insights on this. The viewpoint in my article is supported by more recent knowledgeable articles on creativity and sleep in:

Set the scene for developing new products

The consultants list 21 questions (below) 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 business unit or team meetings such as marketing team meetings. They will make you look very astute because the other participants will soon realize that your creative questions are better than brainstorming in leading to new ideas.

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. Here are the 21 questions in 6 categories:

Creative questions

‘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 them 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 our 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 assumptions 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 5 years?

Bottom line

  • The 21 questions in the list are adaptable to many different situations including the development of new organizations. The questions help participants to be creative in constructive pathways rather than struggle to keep focus on the key points. Through this process, the conclusion can be drawn that creative questions are better than brainstorming.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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