The Second City Way Of Better Brainstorming

Have you ever briefed your group on a topic and given the greenlight for freeform discussion, only to be met by blank stares and middle-of-the-road ideas? Second City Communications is here to help, with these six tips to quell people’s qualms about sharing ideas.

The Second City Way Of Better Brainstorming


Have you ever called a brainstorming meeting, briefed your group on the topic, and given the greenlight for freeform discussion, only to be met by blank stares, tepid enthusiasm, and middle-of-the-road ideas? Thinking you’ve just lit the fuse for a thought explosion, this muted response can be a disappointment, to say the least.

But it shouldn’t be. If your team isn’t used to working without the safety net of careful preparation and scripted presentations, they have reason to be cautious. They fear being judged, rejected, and—gasp–wrong. “People in business are taught to be right and they’re rewarded throughout their careers for demonstrating that they are right,” says Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications, a branch of the Chicago-based The Second City (where comedians the likes of Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler trained).

Second City Communications applies the wisdom gained through improv comedy to help companies be more innovative and creative with their thinking. What Yorton has learned is that many folks in the business world simply lack experience thinking in uncritical ways. “People are expected to be good at this stuff, but it’s an unrealistic expectation given the amount of practice they get. So it’s not surprising that people aren’t really comfortable with it.”

Here are seven tactics to help spur uninhibited expression. With any luck, it’ll be raining innovative ideas in no time.

1. Loosen Up

Practice is important, but so is a culture that encourages offbeat–even “wrong”–ideas. In other words, loosen up. An irreverent culture enjoys less-confined thinking, says John Putzier, author of Get Weird! 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work. “How many times have you been in a party, and you come up with some really funny and cool ideas when you’re in that setting because it’s relaxed and you feel comfortable with the people? Work rarely feels like a party.”


Relaxing decorum and the emphasis on being correct allows people to be wrong in good ways. “We don’t have to punish people for making a mistake if it’s well intentioned and they weren’t breaking the law,” Putzier says. He cites the example of the Post-it note, which came from a faulty adhesive. “Instead of beating people up for making an honest mistake on the journey to success, you reward it by saying ‘what can we do with this?'”

2. Respect The Process

Above all, you must respect the process. Second City’s success is built on this idea, says Yorton. When they are building a show, they enter a 10- to 12-week process of generating ideas for sketches, incorporating audience suggestions, and determining the sequence of the show. And no one is allowed to mess with the artists. “We declare a protected environment. The only people in that process during the day are the cast and the directors. It’s a safe environment where they can create whatever they want to create: lousy stuff, brilliant stuff, everything in between.”

Yorton says that these rules of engagement are often absent in business. “My view of brainstorming in the corporate world is people are more reverent about their idea than reverent about the process, and they have it wrong. Do it the other way. Be reverent about the process and good ideas will emerge.”

3. Yes, and…

A brainstorm is basically an improvisational session. You go in with a rough idea and hope to come out with something entirely different and awesome. To this end, one of improv comedy’s foundational tenets is the notion of “yes, and…” Simply, it means to affirm and build upon each idea, says Yorton. “’Yes, and…’ is when an actor offers any idea–‘hey it’s nice day out’–and the job of the other actor is to agree with that, not deny it, and add something to it.”


When improv performers use this technique and fall into a good rhythm, they’re redirecting each other’s contributions toward ever-funnier territory. There’s something to be learned from that: Shooting somebody’s idea down only serves to kill momentum. Rather, affirm and build. “In the business world, that’s a foreign idea. Mostly people are thinking, ‘No, but…’ Mostly people are thinking about what’s wrong with an idea.” Of course, business requires good critical thinking–but that needs to be backburnered until brainstorming is finished.

4. Judge Not

People are used to censoring themselves. They filter out the “crazy” ideas in their head and verbalize what they think is acceptable. But that’s not useful in the spitballing phase. Yorton says you need to fool those filters, and a good technique is to use speed. “We do lightning round kind of stuff. We believe that speed of thought is fantastic in getting people to a place where they’re not in judgement because there’s no time to be in judgement.”

One exercise Second City uses to get people to suspend judgement is called “point and un-tell,” where someone will walk around the room and point at different objects and someone else has to say it’s anything but what it actually is. “It’s like fooling the brain into seeing different possibilities and seeing different stuff,” says Yorton. “It’s a limber up and speed-of-thought kind of thing.”

5. Find The Second Right Answer

Despite the old adage, sometimes it is good to beat a dead horse. You may have come to a few cursory conclusions and found some good-enough solutions, but that’s not good enough. Early solutions often aren’t the strongest–and they’ve probably been thought of before. Your job is to go deeper. Putzier calls it looking for the second right answer. “It takes a little bit of discipline because we tend to jump on the first, obvious solution to a problem.”


Yorton also urges people not to quit too early. Often, when an idea session is getting a bit chaotic, things start to get good. Avoid the urge to over-manage the chaos. “Sometimes people will be on a roll and someone will change the energy and take it to a different place instead of just letting it run,” says Yorton. “You may think you got something really good, but it might be the bridge to something that is ridiculously good.”

6. Get Thicker Skin

Some companies will roast one of their products; much like a celebrity roast, a product roast can take shots at what’s not working, what seems ridiculous, obviously flaws. Of course, this requires management to set the tone that people are allowed to be irreverent. “They have to signal that they’re not going to punish people for doing that,” Yorton says, “that they accept that as a sign of healthy culture.”

7. Listen To Your Audience

The idea of co-creation is central to everything that improv comedians do, and can be helpful in brainstorming in business.

“As an improv theater for 50 years, we have had audience suggestion being a central part of creating shows and incorporating audience ideas into our ideas,” Yorton says. “If you’re looking for better ideas in business, what we encourage people to do is find ways to not the burden all on that five person creative team in that lunchtime brainstorm, but bring customers in. Can you bring alien eyes into the situation? The alien eyes will give you the unlikely idea, the unexpected connection.”


[Image: Flickr user Cameron Russell]