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April 13, 2018

3 steps to better brainstorming

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sept. 24, 2018.

    When you're faced with a difficult problem, it's common to try and brainstorm potential answers, but writing for Harvard Business Review, Hal Gregersen—executive director of the MIT Leadership Center—argues you should brainstorm questions instead.

    Questions, he writes, "often beget novel– even transformative–insights," and brainstorming questions rather than answers "makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory."

    Gregersen writes that he has spent years honing his so-called "question burst" brainstorming process and has broken it down into three main steps: 

    1. Select a challenge

    The first step is to identify a problem you deeply care about and prepare a high-level overview that conveys the positive outcomes from solving the problem and briefly explains why you're stuck in a dilemma. This overview, should take no more than two minutes to deliver, Gregersen writes

    Next, invite a group of people "who have no direct experience with the problem and whose cognitive style or worldview is starkly different from yours" to help you consider the challenge from different perspectives.

    Before the brainstorming can begin, Gregersen says you should detail "two critical rules." First, only questions can be contributed. Second, questions cannot be framed with a justification or a preamble because doing so will "guide listeners to see the problem in a certain way—the very thing you're trying to avoid."

    Gregersen also recommends doing an "emotion check" right away. Take a moment and reflect on how you're feeling about the challenge and write down a few words that describe your mood.

    2. Start brainstorming

    With a timer set to four minutes, the group should aim "to generate as many questions as possible," Gregersen writes. Quantity is key in this exercise, not quality. And as in all forms of brainstorming, Gregersen writes that there should be no pushback on any question that's offered—a rule that he acknowledges can be hard for leaders who are conditioned in the workplace to have ready answers.

    After the timer goes off, Gregersen recommends another emotional check. Think about the challenge and how you feel about it now. If you're not feeling more positive about it than you were before, Gregersen recommends taking a break and maybe trying it again, or trying it another day, maybe with difference participants. He recommends completing "at least three rounds of the question burst exercise for a given issue."

    3. Pick a solution and run with it

    Once you have your questions, Gregersen recommends you sit down on your own and review them, looking for questions that "suggest new pathways" to solve your problem. "Select a few that intrigue you, strike you as different from how you've been going about things, or even cause you to feel a bit uncomfortable," Gregersen writes, noting that about 80% of the time you'll find at least one question that helps you reframe the problem in a new light.

    Next, Gregersen recommends expanding on those questions by asking yourself why you chose them. "By better understanding why a question really matters and what obstacles you might face in addressing it, you deepen your resolve and ability to do something about it and further broaden the territory of possible solutions," Gregersen writes.

    Finally, Gregersen writes, "commit to pursuing at least one new pathway you've glimpsed," and do it tenaciously.

    The importance of facilitating questions

    Question brainstorming is not something that comes naturally to most people, as they have "internalized the habit of not asking them—especially the tough ones," Gregersen writes.

    To change this habit Gregersen writes that employees should feel "encouraged to value creative friction in everyday work." He adds, "People also become better questioners in organizational cultures where they feel safe doggedly pursuing the truth, no matter where it takes them." Gregersen cites MIT's Ed Schein, who said the key to creating such cultures is "humility, vulnerability, and trust" from leadership.

    "When those conditions aren't present, questions tend to be constrained or, worse, crushed," Gregersen writes (Gregersen, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018).

    Our tips on how to have a thought-provoking meeting

    There are about 11 million formal meetings in the United States every day—and more than half of them may be unproductive. Why? Because many meetings are inefficiently run. They don't set or achieve clear goals. And we hold them out of habit.

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