What's Better than Brainstorming?

This article was first published on Lean Startup Labs.

In the innovation process, one of our earliest activities is ideation, i.e. collecting many ideas so we have several viable alternatives for solving the problem. A common practice is to schedule a brainstorming session where team members with different skills and backgrounds can generate a free flow of dozens of ideas. The team will then curate a short list of what they believe to be the most promising ideas.

However, there can be problems with brainstorming. The sessions are often dominated by the two or three loudest voices in the room. Groupthink can drive the focus of the discussion toward one particular theme at the expense of other better possibilities. As a result, this widely-practiced group exercise can completely miss the boat on “outside-the-box” ideas. And despite best efforts, it’s not uncommon to get into arguments about feasibility as ideas come up. Even when the ground rules say “all ideas are good,” it’s just too hard to turn off that critical-thinking part of the brain.

As it turns out, there’s a tool much better suited to productive group ideating. It’s called the “7-to-1 Tool” and you can download it here from Intuit Labs. In this process each team member is given homework to independently come up with seven unique solutions to a stated problem. Why seven? There’s some thoughtfulness behind that number. It turns out that for most people, it’s easy to think of three or maybe four ideas. Getting to seven turns out to be much more difficult. Once the obvious ideas have been unpacked from your head, you are forced to think outside the box. Quite often these will be your best, most creative ideas.

Later, the team convenes to have each member share their seven ideas. Because each person gets a turn to share their homework, there’s no danger of certain individuals dominating the discussion. As ideas are being shared, other team members can comment on what aspects of the idea they like. The process is inherently efficient, as each person takes their turn, they won’t repeat any ideas that have already been shared.

After everyone has shared their ideas, the team can discuss which ideas they like the best. Don’t be surprised if the best ideas turn out to be a synthesis of two or more ideas.

With “7-to-1” you reap the benefits of brainstorming for multiple alternatives for solving your problem, without many of the downsides. Give it a try the next time you ideate!

In our forthcoming book, Jeff Zias and I are writing about how companies can drive growth by empowering employees to work on their own ideas.