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Brainstorm & Ideation

Thinking Inside the Box:

When I teach my Visual Design course I have students participate in the following brainstorming activity. I ask them to pair up. I tell them that they are working for the breakfast cereal company Post, and Post wants to get more children to eat Honeycomb Cereal. The bosses have decided that the best way to appeal to kids is to include a prize in the box. They’ve gotten a deal with the movie company that produced the Harry Potter movies. So, the theme will be Harry Potter books and movies.

The Goal: The team to come up with the most ideas (doesn’t matter how good they are) wins. Next I list the the Restrictions of the Game (which limit: possible solutions). The toy in the box must:

  • must fit in a cerial box (or made from the box)
  • kid-friendly (fun, non-toxic, appropriate to age, interests, etc)
  • relate to Harry PotterBegin!

Finally, I tell them, “Don’t stop until I say stop.”  I give them 5-7 min. I watch and listen. I give teams enough time to run out of steam (ideas). They will start to drift, talk about unrelated things. You will see almost no one writing down ideas anymore. This is the end of the first hump. From at least one team (including the team that eventually will win) I listen to hear someone say something like: “That’s ridiculous!” and laughing. This indicates they have hit the turning point

where someone says something stupid and the second hump of “crazy” ideas usually begins.

Next I pause the groups to say: “I want to sweeten the pot with a prize. I know this is kinda hokey, but I’m giving away this un-opened box of Kashi Chocolate Almond bars. I don’t care about the quality of your solutions. Just how many you can come up. So, come up with as many solutions as you can quickly, because your time is almost up.”

When I call times up students usually enjoy counting up their solutions to find out who won. Then I lead a brief discussion. I ask questions like these.

“Was this fun?” and “What would make this activity more satisfying?” “If the task were more challenging or LESS challenging? Why? For example: What if – No Harry Potter theme? – ie. What if any prize were allowed, any kid-friendly toy that will fit in a box were an acceptable solution? They usually answer that they like it to be challenging.

If you’ve even been part of a brainstorming session you may have noticed a certain pattern. You start off with lots of ideas, but they’re often not really very good ideas. We know we’re not supposed to criticize ideas during the brainstorming session because negativity really kills the creativity. But, as we go along we get the feeling that we’re not really coming up with anything we can use. Our solutions are the “low hanging fruit.” They are highly relevant. They are very conventional. They aren’t particularly clever, novel or unique. After the initial excitement wears down, this eventually slows to a crawl. Then there is a lull, until … something interesting happens.

Someone throws out an idea (maybe absurd, crazy, stupid even) an idea that is divergent. You can tell when you get to this point because usually someone laughs aloud. Like I said the idea is usually a stupid answer. It fits, but it’s kind of ridiculous. And that is the TurningPoint: something clicks and more ideas (that are better) start coming out. Other people join in as if to say, “well if that stupid answer you gave is permissible, then I’ve got one to add.”

If we were to analyze the session later, and actually graph these proposed solutions we might notice that at this point an upward curve at this point.  So, it’s a good idea to push through past stale, cliché ideas until you break through. Solutions can be graded as having the following two qualities:

Relevance: the degree to which the problem is solved fully. Requirements are limiters. The toy must be appropriate for the target age group. Something kids would like and parents would approve of. It must fit in a cereal box and be related to Harry Potter in some way.

Novelty: the degree to which the solution is original or unique. Solutions with a high degree of relevance and low degree of novelty are cliché.  Solutions with a high degree of novelty? and low degree of relevance are unworkable, and impractical.

Given these two qualities, what’s an example of an idea for a prize that is high in relevance but low in novelty? An answer might be a wand, Harry Potter glasses, plastic character figure, etc. What’s an example of a prize that is low in relevance, but high in novelty? An answer might be a stapler. So, the best solutions are high in relevance, and high in novelty!

The shape of the brainstorming curve ends up looking like a double-humped camel. Notice what is happening in both humps and at the TP (turningpoint). Why are our first ideas so typical, cliché, un-original, stale, boring? You might think it’s because we are not very creative people. But that’s not really the best answer. The best answer is that that’s how our brains work. Your brain is really good at solving problems fast. It was designed to work that way. And it’s a good thing because in real life we have to solve problems all day long and in real life solutions that are cliche (relevant but not very novel) are often the best solutions to solve the problem we face.

I tell my students to imagine this scenario:

You’re home for Spring Break. You’ve been hanging out with a friend from high school. She drops you off at your house at dusk. Your family is gone. No one home. Wave goodbye to your friend. She drives away. You reach for your purse for your keys. Oops you left it in your friend’s car. No keys, no phone. A drizzling rain turns into sleet while you watch the daylight fade to night.

What happens next? Immediately Your brain kicks into action and starts brainstorming solutions. But, what matters most at that moment – solutions with a high degree of novelty? or solutions w/ high degree of relevance? A relevant solution to the predicament above might be to go to check for an open window or go to a neighbor’s house for the night. That would be a good idea. A novel solution might be to heave a rock through your front window. That would be novel, but not really a good idea. In ordinary life, you are an experienced PROBLEM SOLVER. But the solutions – most valued in ordinary life – are highly RELEVANT,   NOT highly NOVEL.

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