The most productive way to brainstorm
The most productive way to brainstorm

Can you unlock creativity on demand?

I believe you can – if you prepare.

At Superhuman, our best ideas come from brainstorming sessions. I've led many brainstorms – and we have generated as many as 500 ideas in a single session.

Here's how I do it, and why it works…

1. Alter your environment

Research has found two social-psychological conditions that stimulate ideas: dynamism and freedom.

Move to a location that inspires these feelings – a different part of your home office, a backyard tent, or a cabin in the woods. If your team is joining over Zoom, encourage them to do the same.

2. Invite plastic and divergent thinkers

Psychologists have identified 2 personality traits that predict idea generation and originality: "plasticity" and "divergence". Plasticity means high openness and extraversion, whereas divergence means high non-conformity and impulsivity.  

Which members of your team approach problems from a unique angle, or give you challenging feedback? You need them at your brainstorm.

An offsite Superhuman brainstorming session in 2017

3. Encourage ideas with positivity

There is a common catchphrase at brainstorming sessions: "there's no such thing as a bad idea!"

The reason is simple: a positive environment amplifies our ability to think creatively. And a leader's positivity directly impacts team performance.

Of course, many ideas in a brainstorm will be…not the best! That's expected and perfectly fine.  Just say "yes, and…" to build on them and keep the ideas flowing.

4. Moderate motivational intensity

Motivational intensity is how strongly we want or do not want something.

High motivational intensity narrows thinking, whereas low motivational intensity broadens thinking. This is why we often solve problems shortly after we stop thinking about them.

To moderate motivational intensity, keep the atmosphere pleasant and relaxed. Don't create a sense of urgency, or put individuals on the spot.

5. Reframe the challenge with constraints

Add constraints, then rapidly take them away. This engages the part of our brain that autonomously solves problems.

Let's say that you want your startup to make $1M in 2021.

Add constraints: What if you had only 2 months to meet that goal? What if you had to do it with half your team? And what if you had to do it without spending any money at all?

Remove constraints: What if you had 5 years to do it? What if you had a team of 1,000 people? And what if you could spend infinite money to achieve your goal?

6. Stimulate ideas with the "switch method"

Anyone in the room can yell "switch!" any time they feel the energy getting stale. Everyone should then stand up, move around briefly, or change seats. Simply walking increases creative output by 60%.

7. Seek questions, not answers

Another tactic: brainstorm for questions, rather than answers.

For example, stop asking "how do we make $1M in 2021?" Instead, come up with related questions:

  • "Why do we want to make $1M in 2021?"
  • "What's the most daunting thing about this goal?"
  • "How do we think our competitor would approach this?"

This technique helps attendees push past cognitive biases and see the challenge in a new light.

8. Hold a ranked-choice vote

You now have a deluge of ideas. How do you find the game-changers?

Triage ideas with a ranked-choice vote. Give each person a virtual $100 in voting currency, and ask everybody to "invest" in the ideas they think are best.

This engages your team with the prioritization process. And you'll see which ideas have the most currency, quite literally.

9. Score ideas by cost and impact

After the brainstorm, the decision-maker steps in.

The decision-maker is the subject matter expert who is accountable for the outcome. In a startup, this is often the team leader or CEO.

The decision-maker then assigns a cost and impact to each idea. Each dimension is rated as low, medium, or high. I sometimes add my own confidence rating in these rankings, and identify risks up-front.

10. Prioritize low-cost, high-impact ideas

Once you have estimated cost and impact, you'll see the most important ideas.

Feed some high-impact, high-cost ideas into your long-term plans. These ideas often reveal gaps in team and strategy.

Prioritize some high-impact ideas with a low or medium cost into your near-term plans. These ideas often reveal ways to quickly improve a product or service. For example, in our 2017 brainstorm, we came up with "Pinned Labels". A few months later, this became "Split Inbox". Today, it is one of Superhuman's most loved and powerful features!