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A guide to more productive brainstorming

Glenys Barton

The key to successful brainstorming is to focus on questions rather than answers, writes Hal Gregersen for Harvard Business Review.

You, like all business leaders, are familiar with brainstorming – freewheeling group sessions in which you and members of your team spitball potential solutions to a problem in the hope of finding the answer you’re looking for. And sometimes you get lucky.

But more often than not, a brainstorming session will become chaotic, unproductive, seemingly endless and energy sapping. Ideas will be jotted down but never acted on.


Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, has a simple solution: forget racking your brain for a solution and instead brainstorm for questions.

But won’t more questions result in even more time wasted? Apparently not.

The first time Gregersen tried asking questions instead of looking for answers, it revivified the discussion and “opened up unexpected pathways to potential solutions”. He has since used the technique with clients including Chanel, Danone, Disney, EY, Fidelity, Genentech and Salesforce.

“Undercutting the approach is a broader recognition that fresh questions often beget novel – even transformative – insights,” he writes.


Gregerson has developed a process he calls the “question burst”. The question burst consists of three steps:

  • Setting the stage,
  • Asking questions, and
  • Making a plan.


1) Focus on selecting the right challenge – pick something you are passionate about, something that “makes your heart beat fast”, as Brad Smith, CEO for software company Intuit, puts it.

2) Pick your brainstorming team – make sure you include several people who have no prior experience with the challenge and whose way of thinking about and looking at the world is different from your own. These people, who have “no investment in the status quo”, will ask compelling questions that you and members of your direct team will not.

3) Concisely describe the challenge. How would things change for the better if the challenge were overcome? Why hasn’t the challenge already been overcome? This should take no longer than two minutes. There are just two golden rules for participants: they can contribute only questions and there must be no framing of questions that could impact the way the rest of the group sees the challenge.

4) Conduct a quick “emotion check”. How do you feel about the challenge? You will repeat this process when the session is over. This is vital to keeping up your creative energy level.


1) Start asking questions. Set a timer for four minutes and get going. Remember: all questions, providing the questioner follows the two golden rules, are valid. “The more surprising and provocative the questions are, the better,” writes Gregersen.

Write all the questions down verbatim, adding your own questions into the mix as you go along. Aim for 15 questions. Check the accuracy of your record with the group after the four minutes is up.

Why four minutes? Time pressure helps the group to adhere to the “questions only” rule; studies show moderate performance pressure can boost creative output; it would take a great deal of time and effort to write down all the questions if the question burst lasted longer; and the process can lose momentum after three and a half minutes as group members’ brains tire.

2) Do another quick emotion check. How do you feel about the challenge now? How do the other group members feel? If you feel positive, continue. If you don’t, try another question burst tomorrow, perhaps with a different group of people.

Studies show that creative problem solving is more successful when you are in a positive frame of mind. The idea is to try and dispel the feeling of being stuck.


1) Pick the best questions. Now it’s time to go it alone. Study the questions, looking for those that help you see the challenge in a different light and have the potential to provide a way of overcoming it. Select several that stand out as different – perhaps even make you feel uncomfortable.

2) Fully interrogate your list of questions. When you have honed your list, use the iterative “five whys” technique, developed by the Japanese inventor and founder of Toyota Industries Co. Sakichi Toyoda. Ask yourself: why is this question important? Why is the reason I have just given important? Ask why of each question in turn until you have asked why five times.

3) Create a plan. Finally, commit to pursuing one possible solution and create a three-week action plan. Don’t choose the solution that will be comfortable or easy to implement. Choose the solution you think will work.


In his book Driven to Distraction at Work: How to focus and be more productive, Dr Edward Hallowell, a specialist in ADD and ADHD, writes that worry “feasts on a solitary victim”.

With traditional brainstorming, focused on answers rather than questions, individuals perform better than groups. Reasons for this include: “social loafing”, relying on contributions from other group members, social anxiety and fear of judgment. The question burst process helps to avoid these problems; it doesn’t ask for an individual’s opinion, creating a “safe space” for people to offer their contributions.


Not all questions are created equal. Here are five techniques to help you ask the right kind of questions:

1) Divergent-thinking. Try making random associations or imagining yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

2) Think OSS. Ask open, short and simple questions.

3) Question in the right order. Descriptive questions (what is working?) should come before speculative questions (what if?). You should shift from simple questions to complex questions that demand creative synthesis (defined by the Psychology Dictionary as: “the mixture of many concepts, visuals or correlations into a new whole, particularly whenever this varies fundamentally from any of its parts”).

4) Make passion your motivation. Your questions should “spring from a deeply held conviction about what the group wants to achieve”.

5) Ask nicely. Avoid aggression.


Multiple question bursts (Gregersen recommends three per challenge) can help you refine and ultimately solve a challenge. “It’s an efficient path to fresh perspectives and creativity,” he writes. “The process will get easier the more you do it.”

Create a culture of “creative friction” by constantly encouraging your team to ask questions, but everyone, most of all you, must avoid only asking questions. “People must take responsibility for exploring the pathways those questions open up and discovering valuable answers,” writes Gregersen. “This is especially true for leaders.”

Source Article: Better Brainstorming
Author(s): Hal Gregersen