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Brainstorming 2.0: Making Ideas That Really Happen

Brainstorming 2.0: Making Ideas That Really Happen
Published February 21, 2011 by Scott Belsky
One of the most common questions we hear at 99U is: “How do I get more out of my brainstorming sessions?” While brainstorming sessions have become perhaps the most iconic act of creativity, we still struggle with how to give them real utility.
The problem of course is that most brainstorming sessions conclude prematurely. We all love to dream big and come up with “blue sky” ideas. We’re less fond of diving into the nitty-gritty details of creative execution. As a result, we spend 90% of our time coming up with a bunch of great ideas, and maybe 10% (if any!) of our time discussing how to actually make those ideas happen. So how can we retool our approach to brainstorming to make it more effective? Let’s take a look at the “brainstorming” process of one of the most successful creative visionaries of all time: Walt Disney. Disney’s rigorous creative process involves 3 distinct phases of idea development, each of which is designed to unfold in a separate room. While the “rooms” started as a literal part of Disney's process, they also serve as a helpful metaphor for the various steps we should take in our own attempts to develop new ideas.

Step 1 asks “WHAT are we going to do?”

It’s all about dreaming big. Any idea, no matter how absurd, can and should be suggested. Here, you are defining the big, bold objectives that will shape your project. Room Setup: Airy rooms with high-ceilings are the best locations for thinking big. The team should sit in a circle facing each other to promote collaboration and creative flow. Mentality: Any idea is fair game. This step is not about feasibility, it's about surprise. Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.
Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Step 2 asks “HOW are we going to do it?”

Now the focus is on creative execution. How will the idea be implemented? Who’s doing which tasks? What’s the timeline? In Disney’s case, this stage would involve sketching out characters, discussing plot, and ultimately building out storyboards. Room Setup: A practical room with a large dry-erase board or wall facilitates strategic planning. The team should sit in a semi-circle facing the board as everyone participates in the execution planning process. Mentality: This is the step where you role up your sleeves and fill in the blanks. You may find a gem of an idea from the first step that needs to be fleshed out. During this phase, seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility. When something doesn't make sense, question it.
Seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility.

Step 3 asks “WHY are we doing this?”

And, “Is this the right approach?” In this final phase, the critic enters the fray, asking hard questions. Is the plan really gelling? Are their unwieldy aspects that need to get cut? Are you meeting the overall project objective? Room Setup: Analytical thinking is best done in smaller, more constrained spaces. (The Disney crew used a small room under the stairs.) The team sits in a single row facing the project plan, which promotes criticism of the project, but not individual people. Mentality: Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts. In step two, you're likely to get lost in the weeds. The third step provides the perspective from the balcony as opposed to the dance floor. In this phase, consider your plan in the context of your business and your long-term mission.
Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts.
Where traditional brainstorming approaches would probably have us patting ourselves on the back and adjourning the meeting after Step 1, Disney’s method goes deep: it’s methodical, it’s disciplined, and it’s time-intensive. Brainstorming should be creative and subsequently practical. The various “rooms” prompt us to take the right mentality at the right time, ultimately giving great ideas the thoughtful consideration they require to see the light of day. For more tips on collaborating with a creative team, whether you're in the office or outside of it, check out our Self-Management Superhero post. -- How Do You Work? What's your approach to action-oriented brainstorming? Do you have any tips for managing new ideas through to completion?

More about Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.


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