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Brainstorming Is Killing Your Creativity

Our go-to method for problem solving is majorly flawed. Here’s how to flip it on its head.

Brainstorming Is Killing Your Creativity
[Photo: Rawpixel]

In a typical brainstorming session, you attempt to solve a challenge by gathering a team to generate new ideas. While it sounds logical, this method is actually rife with problems, like “social loafing,” coasting on others’ contributions, and social anxiety about having your ideas judged. That can hinder original thinking and stifle introverted team members, according to an article published in Harvard Business Review.

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Instead of looking for answers, you should be brainstorming for questions, says Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and MIT Sloan professor. “The best leaders in the world ask better question, creating conditions and situations that cause them to be wrong or uncomfortable and quiet,” he says. “When that happens, they end up being almost forced to ask things other people wouldn’t ask.”

Coming up with questions allows you to explore a problem more deeply, pushing past biases and arriving at uncharted territories, says Gregersen, author of Questions Are the Answer. He uses a three-step process that he calls “question burst” that sets up conditions to harness the power of questions.

Set The Stage

Start by identifying a challenge you care deeply about, such as growing your business into a new category or entering a potential partnership. If it makes your heart beat faster, it’s probably a good candidate, Intuit chairman and CEO Brad Smith told Gregersen.

You can do a question burst on your own, but bringing others into the process will give you access to a wider knowledge base and help you maintain a constructive mind-set. “It’s best to include two or three people who have no direct experience with the problem and whose cognitive style or worldview is starkly different from yours,” says Gregersen. “They will come up with surprising, compelling questions that you would not, because they have no practiced ways of thinking about the problem and no investment in the status quo.”

Once you’ve gathered your team, describe the problem in two minutes, briefly sharing why you’re stuck. Providing a short overview forces you to frame it in a way that won’t direct questioning. Then share Gregersen’s two rules:

  1. No one can answer any of the questions.
  2. No one can explain why you’re asking the question.

“Both of those things walk the other person into a corner about how you already see the problem, which is the reason why you’re stuck anyway,” says Gregerson.

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Brainstorm The Questions

Set a timer for four minutes and generate as many questions as possible about the challenge. The emphasis is on quantity over quality, and the group should try for at least 15 questions. The more surprising and provocative the questions are, the better they are, Gregersen says. Record them verbatim.

“When working with large enterprises, I often notice that senior leaders in particular find it excruciatingly difficult to resist offering answers—even for four minutes—when people start throwing out questions,” he says. “This impulse is understandable, and not just for senior executives. In a hierarchy, any manager’s failure to have ready answers may be perceived as an embarrassing stumble.”

Gregersen says four minutes isn’t a hard rule, but the shortened time does put pressure on participants to stick to the questions-only rule. It also helps address attention span issues.

Identify A Resulting Quest

After the question burst is over, review the questions, looking for those that cause you to realize you’re a little bit wrong or make you a little bit uncomfortable. “Those are probably provocative questions that were poking at an assumption,” says Gregersen. “It’s like, ‘Hmm, I didn’t quite see it that way. Maybe if I got a better answer to this question I could get a solution.'”

Questions that make you uncomfortable are a little more emotional, says Gregersen. “It’s like, ‘There’s something perhaps even unconscious going on here, but it’s signaling to me this is an important question,'” he says.

Then make those questions part of your quest. “These are questions that are worth getting answers to,” says Gregersen. “Put yourself in some conditions that will get you better answers and better questions. Talk to some people who are different from you. And put yourself in places that are a bit unusual, in order to continue to get better answers and solutions.”

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Commit to pursuing at least one new pathway you’ve gleaned from the question burst process.

The Results

After doing the process with more than 10,000 leaders around the world, including at companies like Chanel, Disney, and Salesforce, Gregersen has collected 1,500 data points and found that 80% of the people who shared the challenge felt at least a little bit better emotionally.

“That’s not trivial,” he says “There’s been amazing work done by [Harvard Business School professor] Teresa Amabile in Harvard over the decades that says when we’re in a positive emotional space, we’re more likely to get a new idea, and I would say a new question. So this method basically helps people move to a better emotional state.”

When people feel worse, Gregersen says it’s generally because they’ve realized that they are more of the problem than they realized, or that the problem is bigger than they thought it was. “Both of those things aren’t bad,” he says. “It’s better to know sooner than later that I’m part of the problem, and the problem is bigger than I thought it was. It just helps me refine it.”

In 80% of the sessions, question bursts help reframe a problem, says Gregersen. “As we try to get a final good answer to a thing we’re stuck on, what we’re doing is reframing and reframing,” he says. “The questions are reframing the problem and reframing our questions. It’s amazing that a short four-minute period can unlock us emotionally and intellectually, and start us down a slightly different path.

“This is not about asking questions for questioning sake; that’s just people trying to be clever, and they’re very annoying,” says Gregersen. “This is about asking a lot of questions to find better questions.”