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Brainstorms that Work: 3 approaches for better creative sessions

Brainstorming has (rightly in our opinion) come in for a lot of criticism – particularly where it maintains the fallacy of the Eureka moment: that great ideas appear out of thin air thanks to huge creative leaps from super creative individuals. This is a poor basis for innovation, instead, as Scott Berkun suggests in his book The Myths of Innovation, “every amazing creative thing you’ve ever seen, or idea you’ve ever heard can be broken down into smaller ideas that existed before.”

As unfashionable as it is in a world that is forever getting faster, good ideas need time to incubate, so trying to crack a problem in a brainstorm that takes a few hours makes no sense. But what if we were to look at this time ‘Brainstorming’ together differently? If instead of trying to come up with winning ideas, we instead used the time to catalyse the process of idea generation by tackling a different challenge.

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson shares the theory of the ‘Adjacent Possible’, a simple concept but one that can be hard to explain simply! In Johnson’s own words ‘The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.’ So in short we can only create the future from what we already have in the present – we can’t make leaps beyond what already exists, but each new creation opens up further new possibilities.

To use an analogy: think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and you keep opening up new possibilities, but you cannot jump any further ahead than a door at a time.

What does this mean for brainstorming? Instead of trying to come up with the ultimate answer, we should focus on trying to uncover as many relevant ‘adjacencies’ as we can. So here are three approaches to make sure your next creative session opens up a wealth of new possibilities:

1) Take Small Steps: creativity is a series of small steps, rather than giant leaps – take the time to find the ideas that are adjacent to existing concepts or solutions first. When the University of Pittsburgh studied brainstorming they found “Idea A spurs a new but closely related thought, which prompts another incremental step, and the chain of little mental advances sometimes ends with an innovative idea.”

2) Use the Power of Analogies: The research also found that analogies helped lead from one idea to the next. Utilising analogies or metaphors to both describe the problem and to help create the solution – in creating an analogy we are identifying  patterns and similarities that will help free participants up to see the problem from a different perspective or unearth fresh concepts

3) Look cross-category: once the team has generated a range of adjacencies – whether these are ideas or analogies – get the group to think about  to identify worlds or categories where similar challenges or issues have been solved in the past and utilise existing (‘adjacent’) solutions that they’ve experienced in different parts of their lives to spark new ways of solving your own challenge.

So instead of using brainstorming to generate solutions, you should find the ideas that are adjacent to existing concepts. Two steps away is too far and will never happen; one step away and you’re nearly there.


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