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Think Inside a Self-Constructed Box

When we generate ideas, we’re told to 'think outside the box.' But it turns out a little bit of structure goes a long way in brainstorming sessions.

Whenever we generate ideas, we’re always told to ‘think outside the box.’ We’ve been trained to play the ‘numbers’ game in the creative process, to populate the wall with as many ideas as possible until one sticks.  This process, if done incorrectly, can yield frustrating meetings that run in circles. Sometimes these wayward brainstorms can cast you far from a viable solution. Over the past couple of years, our team has come to recognize some necessary constraints that help generate new and fresh ideas.

Many brainstorming sessions fail because they exist without any structure. The hardest part of a brainstorming session is not generating lots of ideas, but rather focusing in on ideas that are novel, relevant and actionable. While original thinking is often spurred by escaping the bounds of our traditional line of thinking, the proverbial ‘box,’ we must grasp some restraints to ground idea generation. In some ways, we must still adhere to a box, but one that we construct ourselves.Here are some tips on building the right ‘box’ for an effective brainstorming session.

1. Don’t brainstorm as a committee.

Keep the brainstorming groups small (ideally four people or less). For larger groups, try to break them into smaller brainstorming pods.

2. Seek Diversity.

Gather people from different backgrounds, experiences, and interests.  The best ideas happen when unique opinions, on an equal playing ground, are allowed to ‘spar’ a bit.

3. Ask the right questions to build context, a brief, and core values.

The group should all be on board before venturing into the unknown. Sometimes, certain questions that “frame” the discussion are helpful. For example, an upscale, well designed, environmentally friendly hotel chain might ask, “if GOOD Magazine and Apple created a hotel, what would it look like?”

4. For multiple decisions, hold multiple brainstorming sessions with a specific goal stated for each one.

Cramming too many deliverables into a single brainstorming session is bound for mediocrity.

5. Leave the meeting with Action Steps.

Hold each person accountable for always moving the ball forward.

Boxes aren’t bad, as long as it’s a box that your team has built on its own. And who’s to say it is a box? Maybe you’ll go for something hexagonal?

This tip was co-written by Scott Belsky and Michael Karnjanaprakorn, members of the Behance team. Check out Behance’s guest postings for small businesses trying to make ideas happen, hosted at American Express’ OpenForum.
Comments (5)
  • BeMurthy

    What you are saying is to give a direction for the flow of ideas. <br />
    I would agree and add<br />
    Dont accept the box in which the problem came in…. by redrawing the boundaries one can create more room for certain ideas, and at the same time restrict other non-related ideas.

  • Linchpin

    Design “is” constraints.

  • jgraves

    “The creation of rules is more creative than the destruction of them. Creation demands a higher level of reasoning and draws connections between cause and effect. The best rules are never stable or permanent, but evolve naturally according to context or need.” -Andrea Zittel

  • AlaskaLee

    In my opinion. Seeking the diversity is the most relevant when it comes to brainstorming. However, in this industry diversity is in famine & until we begin to understand why we are starving when trying to escape mediocrity by not embracing diversity the box will always be the same old box.

  • Dan Phiffer

    This reminds me of an interview with Cass Sunstein from a few years ago:

    He talks about studies done on deliberating groups about 25 minutes in.

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