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Thinking about Thinking

Thoughts on thinking about thinking from the Raising Thinkers Series


Filtering by Tag: Brainstorming

3 Lessons from Neuroscience to get Breakthrough Solutions from your Brainstorming Sessions

Tremaine du Preez

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The brief for a new project is in and your team is gathered for a brainstorming session. Everyone puts their thinking caps on and the idea free flow begins. After two hours of caffeine and cold pizza, someone comes up with a brilliant suggestion. The team loves it and you all work out who needs to do what to make it happen. That’s how brainstorming works for you too, right? Easy, creative, with breakthrough ideas? No? I didn’t think so because brainstorming seldom works as advertised. What you may have found rather is that you end up with compromised solutions. Perhaps louder members of the team drown out the introverts. Some participants free ride or refuse to offer ideas to avoid criticism. Others feel they are too junior to participate meaningfully. Perhaps the team leader already knows exactly what 

she wants to do and so steers the team towards her idea. I bet you can add your own brainstorming blues here. If you already know the issues then skip over to the solution on the next page.

Here’s the other tried and tested trouble with all of this. I’m sure you’ll recognise a few.

  • Not everyone has a good grasp of the problem to be solved and history of the issue. Has everyone read the brief?
  • Volume and not quality of ideas is encouraged in traditional brainstorming. This wastes mental energy and time.
  • In bigger groups, team members have to wait their turn to share their ideas, sometimes those ideas get lost in the process.
  • Very strong ideas can get diluted down.
  • Not being allowed to criticise and wanting to blend all the ‘best’ ideas tends to create compromised solutions.
  • Nobody is responsible for coming up with a breakthrough solution and so free-riding is encouraged.
  • Personal investment in the process can be low and rewards, if any, go to the group.

Traditional brainstorming can be like mixing all the colours on a colour palette together. No matter what colours you start with, you will always end up with brown. Mud brown. 

Better Brainstorming for Breakthroughs

Neuroscience knows that there are better ways to induce creativity. Even trying one of them will yield noticeable results. Ready?

1. Prepare for the storm

If someone has ever demanded creativity from you on the spot, you will know how hard it can be. This is usually what’s required of us in a brainstorming session. 

Participants are seldom expected to prepare for a brainstorming session. But imagine if they did? Asking each participant to think of, or investigate, their own best suggestion before coming to the session will vastly improve the quality of the ideas presented. Now nobody can eat the free pizza without offering a good idea in return. Better still, unfeasible ideas will not make it through the door. Each participant should share their own idea before the free flow of ideas begins, so no idea or person is drowned out.

2. Warm up mental muscles

Are you looking for creative solutions? A little innovative thinking or inspired problem solving? Luring someone away from their desk and then expecting genius ideas on the spot defies the laws our brains are subject to. In order to make new mental connections, the frequency that the brain operates at has to be lowered. Some relaxation or interesting stimuli should do the trick.  So, to coax the brain into a creative frame of mind, try some of the following;


Display unusual or interesting items or photos.  Let each person pick one and suggest an unusual use for it. - 1 min per person. (I had a colleague who used to bring in a rubber chicken, you know, the kind that has just been plucked and is ready for the pot.)

Disruptive thinking

Prepare a list of products, services or practices that the company or group already offers. Ask participants how they would improve upon it if they had a generous budget. 

Fames and biases

Ask individuals to identify a piece of conventional wisdom that is used in the office, city, country, society etc, and then how it could be challenged. 

3. Think up a storm

Of course, you can get straight down to business as you usually do. But the 5 to 10 minutes you invest in mental preparation will vastly improve the quality of your brain storming session. Now the group is ready to be productive.

Here are some tips to extract maximum value and creativity from the group. 

Keep the group as small as possible.

Put everyone on the same page.

Assume nothing. Ask for ideas about what caused the problem or led to the need to brainstorm. This will set the scene and make sure that everybody knows exactly what he or she is there to do. Write up different suggestions and notice how many you receive. Clarify and correct wayward ideas and faulty thinking. Note any ideas that are new and sensible. 


Look for loose associations that can contribute lateral thoughts. Naming a new trendy shoe? How about exploring the names of hip or upcoming neighbourhoods in your target market. An energy drink? How about popular trends in action movies? My dad is an undertaker who is forever looking to improve the quality and range of services that he offers. He visits biker clubs and extreme sports groups along with medical associations   and frail care centres to gather information on how to improve his offerings and best meet the needs of his clients in unique ways. Yea, he’s very cool, for an undertaker.

Kick conventional wisdom 

Challenge comfort zone thinking with some provocative questions: 

  • What frame we are currently using?
  • This issue can be reframed as ... 
  • Are we solving the right problem?
  • How do I/we feel about this?
  • What do I/we believe but cannot prove?
  • What conventional wisdom are we using
  • What is the current status quo?
  • What would shatter this status quo?
  • Are we asking the right questions?
  • What if our success was guaranteed? 

Shy team members? Play card games

Ask for ideas and solutions, which would ordinarily be spoken, to be written on cards instead, anonymously. Group the cards into similar themes.  

Remember that brainstorming is a process to generate ideas that lead to solutions. It’s not meant to generate the final solution. For that you need a more structured and analytical process.

Found these useful? Like my FB page here for more brain games over the next few weeks.