How To Actually Brainstorm Productively

Researchers at MIT Sloan have figured out a framework to generate ideas that are actionable. The process they’ve come up with entails seven steps, beginning with these four, in order: 

1. Define the problem and solution space…Create boundaries in the idea-generation process.

2. Break the problem down. Use a visual technique, like diagramming.

3. Make the problem personal. How do you make a business problem personal? By getting down in the trenches and observing the individuals who are affected by the problem (and who would also be affected by your proposed solutions).

4. Seek the perspectives of outsiders. In other words, don’t solve the problem in a vacuum.

The ideas generated through this process work because the goal isn’t to simply come up with good ideas, it’s to come up with ideas that can move. Head over to to catch all seven steps of the process and then try the process on your own or with your team.

load comments (6)


Know the Difference Between Having Focus (Noun) vs. Focus (Verb)

By Michael Dales

By Michael Dales

As the story goes, Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett at a dinner. Gates’ mother (and dinner host) asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed to be the most important factor in their success. The two moguls gave the same answer: “Focus.” 

An advocate for focus in work, life and leadership, Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, believes that many people mistakenly believe that there’s only one type of focus, when there are in fact two. We often miss the nuance and depth associated with the concept of focus:

Focus as a Noun. 
When people speak of focus they usually mean having a single goal. It is a static thing, a thing you have. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Roger Bannister relentlessly pursuing his goal of breaking the four-minute mile, John F. Kennedy challenging NASA to put a man on the moon within a decade or, coming back to Bill Gates, a vision of a personal computer on every desk. The upside to this kind of focus is clear and compelling: you pursue a single objective and don’t get distracted along the way; you build momentum as many different people aligned behind achieving this one goal.

Focus as a Verb. 
Focus is not just something you have it is also something you do. This type of focus is not static; it is an intense, dynamic, ongoing, iterative process. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Steve Jobs saying to Jony Ive day after day, “This might be crazy, but what if we…” until once in a while the idea took the air out of the room. It’s the constant exploration needed to see what is really going on and what the “noun focus” should be.

Focus is a powerful attribute, especially in a world that is tirelessly trying to compete for your time, energy, and attention. McKeown says that if we want to direct ourselves toward what’s essential, then we need to develop both kinds of focus. It’s the only way to confidently answer the question, “What’s important now?”

load comments (0)

Make a Good Impression: Introduce Yourself by Who You Help

By Leah Pavkov

By Leah Pavkov

Introductions are crucial. As the adage goes, “first impressions are lasting impressions.”  Neuroscientists even found that 7 percent of what people think of you is cemented upon meeting you for the first time.

This explains our aversion to name-droppers, ramblers or the people making it rain business cards at networking events – the “dirty” networkers. Bernard Marr, author of Doing More with Less  recommends a simple adjustment to our personal introductions to make a good impression:

Instead of leading with what you do, lead with who you help. As in, “Hi, my name is Bernard, and I help companies identify and make the best use of their key performance indicators and big data.” Done. You know who I am, what I do, and more importantly, whether or not I can help you or someone you know.

Human beings make snap decisions – our brains are hardwired in this way as a prehistoric survival mechanism. However we can use this to our advantage by focusing on how we help others, rather than flaunting how well we’ve helped ourselves.


load comments (2)

How to See Inspiration in the Everyday

Traffic by ccpixel

Traffic by ccpixel

You can’t force inspiration, but how do you cultivate an environment where you are open to it? When the Los Angeles Hammer Museum’s breakout artist Jennifer Moon was looking for a new source of inspiration, she unexpectedly found it on her 5 a.m. drive from Los Angeles to Big Bear. She noticed the dreamlike, half-conscious state of mind was not only soothing and meditative, but allowed her mind to be open to new ideas:

When I’m driving and things come to me, it’s definitely not forced. The times when I try to force it, it usually doesn’t happen. Really, my only job as an artist is to remain as open as possible and as aware as possible, so for ideas to enter me I have to be open. That’s the only thing I really need to focus on.

 As we learned from Moon’s experience, our mind requires moments of rest to collect, organize and connect the abundance of information from our busy lives. This information is supplied through new experiences; in Moon’s case, driving at 5 a.m. has a completely different ambiance than 5 p.m. And lastly, she found inspiration in the everyday. When on vacation, it’s easy to fully engage in every aspect of a new environment.

The challenge is to keep that wonderment alive in the day to day.


load comments (3)

David Rockwell’s Secret To Design: “What If?”

Portrait of David Rockwell
Architect David Rockwell, in his soon-to-be-published monograph What If…?: The Architecture and Design of David Rockwell, describes how he distills his creative process down into one phrase: “What if?”

A recent FastCoDesign feature quotes Rockwell on his penchant for curiosity:

The central question the firm asks on any project… is “what if?”—a query that opens up what could be cut-and-dry design projects (say, the firm’s umpteenth collaboration with chef Nobu Matsuhisa) to unexpected possibilities, like “what if a restaurant became a hotel?”

“I’m interested in hybrids—what happens when you sort of have various things rub up against each other and infiltrate each other?” [Rockwell] explains. “I think this is a time where barriers between what a hotel is, what an office is, what a restaurant is, what a cultural event is, those are all merging.”

This question powers each of Rockwell’s projects. For example, his current undertaking is something called Chefs Club, a Manhattan restaurant he’s designing that will feature a constant rotation of chefs hosted by Food & Wine. If it weren’t for wondering “what if?” Rockwell would not have opened his mind to the possibility of transforming an airport terminal into a “food theme park” or making the cavernous Kodak Theatre into an elegantly intimate supper club for the 2010 Oscars.

Sometimes in the creative process, the right question is the answer.


load comments (0)

How the Tiniest of Improvements Can Have the Biggest Impact

By Dave Huth

By Dave Huth

It’s easy to feel like making tiny tweaks has minimal overall impact. That’s because we often feel pressure to achieve something concretely noticeable, in so doing overlooking the value of minor victories.

In his newsletter, James Clear shares the concept of “the aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve every minute thing that relates to a project, goal, or product by just 1 percent, all those small gains add up over time to a massive win:

Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business or winning the Tour de France as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse.

When you’re making agonizingly slow progress on a project, remember that even just 1 percent improvement across the board can make the difference between total inertia and a breakthrough. After all, 1 percent times 100 is 100 percent.


load comments (2)

14 Things You Should Watch, Read, & Stream before 2015

By Brenna Lindblad

By Brenna Lindblad

This holiday season, it’s likely you’ll find yourself with a bit of downtime while traveling or visiting family. Below, the 99U staff compiled a list of our favorite movies, podcasts, and documentaries that offer new insights on creativity. Our picks allow you to kick back, while still providing inspiration for getting things done, so you can hit the new year refreshed.


From ages 14 to 16, Laura Dekker sailed around the world all by herself. If you’re trying to gear up to do something that scares you (and guilt trips are effective motivation), then this movie should properly inspire you. 


The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance



The Confidence Code is geared towards women but fascinating for anyone who has ever questioned what confidence is or how we develop it. The authors use scientific research and hard data to explore whether we’re born with confidence or if it can be learned, without any fluffy bullshitting. Spoiler alert: You can’t fake it ’til you make it.


Woody Allen: A Documentary

Woody Allen has made, roughly, a film a year for 50 years. Needless to say, the man knows a thing or two about putting out creative work on the regular. This documentary is a fascinating two-part look at his writing and filmmaker process, and how he got his start in the filmmaking biz. Charmingly, Allen still types all his scripts by hand on a typewriter!


Marina Ambramovic: The Artist Is Present

An amazing behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of a now-legendary performance artist, who’s most recognizable for her staring-contest installation a few years back at MoMA. No one better portrays the endurance and persistence required to make great art than Ambramovic. 


 The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Ken Burns’ seven-part film chronicles Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt across their lives and careers without holding back any punches. The way that the Roosevelts approached their careers and lived with a purpose for the greater good is equal parts enthralling and inspiring (and is streaming online for free!).



Talking Funny

Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Louis CK, and Chris Rock all riffing about their creative process (and occasionally breaking into fits of laughter so hard they cry). What could be better? From Louis C.K.’s process of throwing out his act every year, to Jerry Seinfeld’s meticulous joke writing process, every creative has something to learn from here. 


Man on a Wire

Creativity is always a high-wire act, but this doc plays the idea out in its most literal, high-stakes incarnation. This real-world narrative of how high-wire dare devil Philippe Petit walked from one World Trade Tower another unfolds like a suspense-thriller. 


The Act of Killing

A 2014 Oscar nominee for best documentary, this is a beautifully made, harrowing film about reckoning with genocide. Why is it on this list? It’s a testament to how creativity has the power to truly change hearts and minds, which is probably why the filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, won a MacArthur Genius Grant


It Might Get Loud

This doc has advice packed in on all sides: Jack White attacks his creative process like a blowtorch, The Edge obsesses over technology to get just the right sound, and three of the world’s greatest guitar players discuss how there’s no “right” way to do anything. And the tunes ain’t half bad either.


The Pirates of Silicon Valley

The rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is legendary, but rarely is it explored in meticulous detail. Pirates chronicles the early days of the PC era, and the mix of gamesmanship and grit that both men displayed. Even better: the film was made in the year 1999 so we all know what happens to the “down-on-his-luck” founder of Apple after the movie ends.


Startup Podcast

We often hear about a business’s success after it’s all over—rarely do we get a candid look inside the mind of a frantic entrepreneur. In Startup, Alex Blumberg chronicles his journey to create his first start up while recording all the awkward pitches, negotiations, and self-doubt along the way.

All episodes:

Yes Please

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 1.59.53 PM

Amy Poehler’s memoir is both funny, frank, and full of helpful career advice that does not romanticize itself (like how no one gets famous overnight at all, and that you should treat your career like a bad boyfriend). Poehler isn’t scared to tell you how it actually works.


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Pay tribute to this lost diva of comedy with this aptly titled doc about her career. For those of us who are a little younger, it’s fascinating to see the full breadth of Rivers’ career, from her debut on Johnny Carson show onwards. No one hustled like Joan.


Jiro Dreams of Sushi

This critically-acclaimed documentary on a master sushi chef is worth the hype. The film follows Jiro’s relentless pursuit of perfection and how he spends every waking moment improving his craft—great for a post-New-Year’s kick in the pants.


Did we miss anything? Drop your favorite inspirational documentary, video, podcast, or book for 2015 in the comments.

load comments (3)