Coming up with options is one of the critical steps in any decision-making process. Brainstorming is a useful tool to explore the options space. This post illustrates how to do it.
1. Setting the stage
Decide whether you’ll brainstorm on your own or in a group. The latter is preferable since the perspectives of several people typically produce more ideas than any individual on their own.
Next, define the problem for which you aim to generate options, and frame it as a question. Make sure the question is open-ended and provides the appropriate amount of constraint for the brainstorm. Good examples include:
- What are some questions you could ask yourself about [this problem]?
- How many ways can you think of to test [this hypothesis]?
Agree on the rules for the brainstorm. Here are some suggestions:
- Aim for quantity, not quality. Measure the success of the session by the number of options you’ve generated, not the quality of those options.
- Defer judgment. Don’t censor at this stage. Get every idea out on paper. Don’t do anything that would signal liking or disliking of any of the ideas.
- Make sure everyone feels safe to bring up any idea that comes to mind. Encourage wild ideas since they help go beyond the obvious ones.
Finally, decide how much time you’ll dedicate to the brainstorm. Start with a short session (2-4 minutes) to create some urgency, which helps overcome censoring of ideas.
2. Doing the brainstorm
Give everyone a set of post-its and a pen, set a timer, and do the brainstorm. Don’t have the facilitator collect ideas as this limits the speed of the brainstorm.
3. Evaluating the results
Once the timer goes off, collect all post-its in one place. Group similar ideas and give every unique cluster a descriptive name.
Then, vote on the ideas. Do this in silence so everyone can form their independent opinion. Use colored sticker dots to cast votes.
Identify the ideas with the most votes. Discuss their merits and decide what to do about them.
Below are a few questions that have helped me come up with ideas in a variety of situations. Liberally skip any question that doesn’t elicit useful thinking.
- Meta: What are some questions you could ask yourself about this topic? Add those to the list.
- What are the individual steps? Why is each step performed?
- What are the limiting steps? How can you work around them?
- What would this look like if it were easy?
- What metrics can you use to find out if you’re on track? How can you install these metrics in your digital and physical workspace?
- Where does this process need monitoring and gate-keeping?
- What are the worst things that could happen? What could go most wrong? What do you want to avoid?
- What if you did nothing at all?
- What are the second-order effects?
- What are the critical assumptions? How can you verify them?
- Where are you uncertain and expect additional information to be valuable? How can you collect this information?
- Who is an expert at this? How can you get their input?
- What’s the minimum effective dose to get the desired results?
- What would you do to achieve your goal with only 10% of current inputs?
- How can you increase the leverage of your efforts? What do you need to stop doing?
- How can you make yourself redundant?
- What if you could only subtract to solve problems?
- Would you be worried if the details were made public? If yes, why?
- What would your successor do?