5 Rules of Brainstorming

Idea LeadershipWhenever I ask if anyone knows how to brainstorm, they always say, “Yes.” Not long into the activity they demonstrate that they don’t know how or are unable to follow the rules. I always keep a reminder sheet of brainstorming rules on me to quickly review with teams. Here is the list—

1. There are No Dumb Ideas. This is the hardest rule to keep for people who don’t practice brainstorming often, especially when someone shares an idea from out of left field. Any negative feedback immediately closes down part of the person’s mind in the name of protection. It also shuts down anyone else who heard the comment and hinders the team’s progress.

The best way to approach all ideas is from a position of acceptance. Everyone knows when a better idea is shared, so no one ever needs to be told their idea wasn’t any good, especially when the weird ideas tend to spark more creativity that leads to great ideas. The not-so-great ideas are like kindling that starts a bonfire. If kindling is squelched, the bonfire never gets lit.

2. Don’t Criticize Other People’s Ideas. The moment judgment, a left-brain activity, enters the discussion it shuts down the right brain where great ideas are formed. The only reason for a person to shoot down an idea is to show superiority, which stifles creativity. No creative team has room for a superior being on it. After all, a dominant person in a brainstorming session tries to leverage their ideas instead of finding what’s best for the story.

When someone criticizes an idea, the greatest tool of correction is for the team to immediately use the “bad idea” as a launching point for a diversion into play. Dave Crawford, a Disney Imagineering Principal Mechanical Show/Ride Engineer says, “The most unrealistic options inspire tangent ideas that take you to new places you would have never considered.” By exploring all the possible tangents, not only does the criticizer learn his or her place, but also the team gets to overcome the negative comments with numerous newly inspired ideas.

3. Build on Other People’s Ideas. Some ideas are like taking a thumb out of a dam with a flurry of side or bigger ideas pouring forth. Teams can get on a roll of ideas that build one on top of the other. This sends the team into diverse directions and can shift the focus to address sustainable details. The goal is to capture the best of all the ideas and find an angle on it that will out last the test of time.

In the improv community, who brainstorms live on stage, the process is called, “yes, and.” The yes acknowledges the first person’s comment in a positive light and then adds to it a bigger, tangential or more detailed idea. The add-on is never viewed as being “better,” but instead as being the next step in the developmental process for creating great show or story.

4. Reverse Quality for Quantity. During production or performance everyone focuses on quality. However, in the developmental brainstorming process its mandatory to chase after quantity. It’s impossible to come up with a new invention, show or story without pouring through a gazillion ideas until you find that one new angle, perspective or idea. Whether the goal is to educate or entertain, some form of the idea must be new.

Most pros board their brainstorming activities and later gather the large quantity of ideas based on observable groupings, topic, viewpoint or uniqueness. Screenplay writers group their ideas by set pieces, turning points and entertainment value. Businessmen group their ideas based on presentation, features and benefits. Preachers group their ideas based on scripture, story and application.

5. Play Wildly. This is the most important element and the one few people want to see on the list. The more childlike the approach during the brainstorming process, the more creative the final solution. The play factor instills energy into the developmental process and infuses it with fun-based passion. This activity drives the kind of creativity required for a successful brainstorming session.

Many people define play differently. Some watch a movie in between sessions. Some quip off jokes. The more energetic get into character and role-play various perspectives. Others pull out board games, while still others get into pretend or make-believe worlds. Some even get more elaborate in their play within the worlds of cosplay or steampunk. Any activity works that is immersed in right-brained activity—even scribbling games on a blank sheet of paper.

When the rules of brainstorming are adhered to, all participants gain energy from the experience. When the rules are abused, people feel drained afterwards. This thermometer that tests the flow of creative juices is important to monitor for the sake of future sessions and productivity. Without play, all brainstorming sessions fall a part.

The Toy Story 2 Argument: People vs. Ideas

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Ed Catmull offers business lessons from Pixar and Disney in his book, “Creativity, Inc.” I agreed with his perspective on the value of people over ideas, which runs counterintuitive with the majority of production companies.

Most of his philosophy came about during his work on Toy Story 2, a production that originated as a direct to video release, but took a sharp turn and became one of the most successful theatrical sequels of all time. Unfortunately the success and its lessons came at a great cost that formed Catmull’s philosophy.

The argument comes from the business value that either the people or the ideas are more important. The determination of what a company values most determines the processes that exploits that value. If ideas are more important, then the company churns their employees in search of great ideas, but if the people are more important they see to their needs knowing that they will create great ideas.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up,” says Catmull. “If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

Putting a team of the right people with the right chemistry together is the necessary precursor to getting the right ideas. But not everyone agrees with this philosophy. When asked among industry peers the responses to people vs. ideas generate a 50/50 response. This statistically suggests that no one is responding to fact or experience, but rather are all guessing, picking a random answer, as if flipping a coin.

“To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people,” says Catmull. “Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”

The key is determining what makes the people the right people for a project. Some would suggest character alone is sufficient, while others state the importance of mastering one’s craft or holding years of experience. I find that what makes for an ideal person to join a team is one who subscribes to a continuous pursuit of knowledge, the endless exploration of their craft, and a willingness to learn from peers.

“In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, ‘A movie about talking toys— what a clever idea!’ But a movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people,” says Catmull. “The underlying goals remain the same: Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

It’s no wonder that master craftsmen are drawn to others who have mastered their craft. Nor is it strange that excellent creatives gravitate to projects that attract like-minded creatives.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Creating with Opposites

Creating with OppositesI’ve never understood “writers block” or not being able to create something new. Every time I have a slight delay of thought, I change my perspective and I’m flooded with buckets of new ideas. Creativity flows whenever I shift my perspective to something unique.

One change of perspective can come about by considering the opposite. Let’s say I wanted to create a new restaurant or café. The easiest first step is making a list of what restaurants are, such as:

  1. A place with a menu selection of food.
  2. A place to order food.
  3. A place to have food served.

The list could continue, but for this example I’m good with a short list. Now, keep in mind that this list is based on my assumptions of what a restaurant is. It’s possible that not all restaurants have all three. Some places might be more unique, thanks to a creative person who gave input at the onset of the idea. So to pump creativity into my new restaurant idea, I try to list out the opposites:

  1. A place without any form of menu.
  2. A place where food can’t be ordered or bought.
  3. A place where no one serves the food.

This list of opposites opens up the mind and starts my creative process. While the logical person says that’s stupid, the creative soul plays with the ideas. The creative picks a few of the opposites and brainstorms.

What if…

…My restaurant had no menu?

Maybe the chef comes to the table and shares what ingredients and meats he procured that afternoon for the freshest of meals. He shares some ideas with those at the table and based on consensus cooks up a culinary delight. And, sends the family home with the recipe for a future gathering.

…People can’t order food at my restaurant?

Maybe it’s a beautiful setting with privatized ambiance that is rented by the hour and guests bring their own food. Instead of ordering extras that were forgotten by the host, shelves of free supplements are available for use.

…No one serves the food?

Maybe a top chef tosses various plates of food onto a counter for anyone to grab. Each dish is uniquely made from various country recipes and then put on display for anyone to claim. Each presentation perfectly brings out the key elements that make the meal unique to its country.

By using the opposites to brainstorm, several more ideas pop into my head that venture me off in a direction that will make my restaurant unique. Those unordinary possibilities would drive marketing and entice foodies to try something new and refreshing.

Years ago I came up with an idea using opposites and shared it with friends. Everyone was interested in trying my restaurant if I ever got around to making it. Two years later Walt Disney World opened a new restaurant that was so similar that I realized my venture idea could’ve been a success — All due to a creative use of opposites.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers