In the business world these days, brainstorming has a mixed reputation. Increasingly, it’s understood that people tend to do their best creative thinking—particularly in coming up with fresh insights and random associations—in informal, relaxed settings, when they’re not really trying.
A brainstorming session runs counter to that: Everyone is stuck in a room trying desperately to come up with original ideas. “There is too much pressure and too much influence from others in the group,” according to Debra Kaye, author of the book Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation. “The free association done in brainstorming sessions is often shackled by peer pressure and as a result generates obvious responses.”
But at the same time, many businesses are reluctant to walk away from brainstorming because they recognize the critical importance of being able to tackle challenges as a group. Collaborative thinking and problem-solving is essential because it allows for bringing together multiple viewpoints and diverse backgrounds. And while it’s understood that creativity sometimes requires solitude (“Be alone, that is when ideas are born,” Nikola Tesla said), we also know that it flourishes when diverse ideas and thoughts are exchanged.
One solution to this conundrum may be to shift the nature of brainstorming so that it’s about generating questions instead of ideas. Interesting findings about this are coming from a number of groups and individuals, working in both the education and business sectors.
The Right Question Institute (RQI)—which specializes in teaching groups of students to tackle problems by generating questions, not solutions—has found that groups of students (whether children or adults) seem to be able to think more freely and creatively using the “question-storming” method, in which the focus is on generating questions. The RQI’s Dan Rothstein believes that some of the peer pressure elements of conventional brainstorming are lessened in this format. Answers tend to be judged more harshly than questions.
In the business world, Hal Gregersen of the MIT Leadership Center has been studying the effectiveness of “question-storming” at major corporations, and has found it to be far more effective than conventional brainstorming. “Regular brainstorming for ideas often hits a wall, because we only have so many ideas,” Gregersen says. “Part of the reason we hit that wall is we’re asking the wrong questions.” At the point when people in a group are struggling with an issue and find “they’re getting nowhere, they’re stuck,” Gregersen says, “that’s the perfect point to step back and do question-storming.”
Gregersen will typically advise group members to try to generate at least 50 questions about the problem that’s being “stormed.” As those questions are being written down for everyone to see, “other team members are paying attention and thinking of a better question.” It’s usually easier to come up with questions than ideas; we don’t have to divine a solution from the air or connect ideas in a fantastically original manner, we just have to come at the problem from a slightly different angle of inquiry.
After observing about a hundred Q-storm sessions around the world, Gregersen has noted some patterns. “At around 25 questions, the group may stall briefly and say, ‘That’s enough questions.’ But if you push on beyond that point, some of the best questions come as you get to 50 or even 75.”
In contrast, the RQI approach to question-storming focuses less on volume and moves more quickly into trying to “improve” the questions generated by the group, by opening closed questions and closing open ones. The key is to converge around the best questions, as decided through group discussion. Indeed this gets to one of the big problems with brainstorming in general: Many ideas are tossed out, but the groups often don’t know how to winnow down to the best ideas. It can be easier to identify “best questions”—they tend to intrigue people, make them want to do more work on that question. RQI recommends coming out of a session with three great questions that you want to explore further.
That’s usually quite doable, which is why question-storming can produce more satisfying results than brainstorming. Instead of hoping that you’ll emerge from a meeting with “the answer” (which almost never happens, and thus leaves people feeling frustrated), the goal is to come out of it with a few promising and powerful questions—which is likely to provide a sense of direction and momentum.