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You're Brainstorming All Wrong: Here's How to Get More Creative Solutions

In a typical brainstorming session, the group focuses on the problem at hand: how could we design a better shoe, for example, or reinvent the secondary education system? Walls get papered with sticky notes listing a range of solutions. Sometimes, though, looking directly at a problem tends to point a group toward solutions that already exist, rather than something more innovative. When someone asks 'how might we redesign education?' the group might think of ideas inspired by apps from new educational startups, or how other countries approach education.


Here's an alternative approach to brainstorming to make it easier to find an answer that's completely different—start with a random prompt. I had a chance to try out this method during AIGA's Compostmodern conference last weekend, during a workshop hosted by Future Partners. We took a fun, somewhat silly approach to finding a random phrase to inspire us: starting with a word written in the center of a huge sheet of paper—in our case, "feather boa," we spent a few feverish minutes playing word association.

Everyone moved around the table until we had created a giant web of words, each playing off the last. Next, we were told to pick a pair of adjacent words that struck us as funny or interesting. These choices from the group went in a pile, someone picked two, and voilà, we had our completely random phrase: "elevator mousetrap big in china." Elements of this became the basis for our solution.

The bigger, unrelated problem that we were trying to solve was how we can build a more resilient society, better able to face increasing environmental and social pressures. We talked about the larger concepts, and then dove into brainstorming ideas based on our random phrase. The end result? A concept for an elevator that would trap and share stories, helping build a sense of community.

Someone would get on an ordinary-looking elevator, push the button, and be told that they couldn't go up unless they shared a story, along the lines of Storycorps. The elevator would ask a question (perhaps something like "What's a moment in your life when you were happiest?" the rider would answer, and if they gave their consent, the story would be shared with others to help build a sense of community.

We debated the finer details without reaching final conclusions in our short brainstorming session—what would happen if more than one person was on the elevator, or whether pushing a different button would lead to a different question. One thing, though, was clear: it was an idea we likely never would have come to if we hadn't started with a random phrase.

Elevator photo via Shutterstock

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