Don’t brainstorm. Frame-storm.

We brainstorm in groups with the hope of generating novel ideas. In principle, that sounds valid. But, a study conducted by scientists from 3M showed the opposite was true. Half of the participants were placed in groups of four, while the other half worked alone. The solo workers generated 40% more ideas than those who worked in groups. Not only more, but they generated ideas of higher quality.

However, brainstorming is a beneficial practice for teams. What can we do to make the most of it? Start frame-storming instead: generate questions and multiple perspectives to a problem, to change the frame of reference.

Warren Berger, author of ‘Question’, believes “encouraging people to formulate lots of questions around a problem can lead to deeper analysis and a better understanding of that problem—which, eventually, can yield smarter ideas on how to tackle it.” This technique is popular in companies like Microsoft and Kaiser Permanente.

Here are the components of frame-storming.

  1. Rethink the problem. Stanford Professor Tina Seelig says, “Your answer is baked into your question.” Thus all brainstorming sessions need to start by questioning the question. For example, asking ‘How can we hire better employees?’ sets you up for the assumption that what you have may or may not be good, and hence you need something more. But, flip the question to ‘What kind of new employees will serve the organization best right now?’ and it opens up a new plane for exploration.
  1. Don’t reject luke-warm ideas. Brain storming sessions often come with the pressure of generating brilliant ideas. In that pursuit, we may reject ideas that don’t work. However, if you ask, ‘What would make this idea a winner?’ you’d have more to work with. In one of Seelig’s innovation classes, a bad idea was selling swimsuits in Antarctica. A group was tasked with making this idea a good one. They suggested taking people who want to get into shape on a trip to Antarctica. By the end of the hard journey, they would be able to fit into their swimsuits.
  1. Unpack the assumptions. To find something new, start with what you know. If you are addressing employee engagement challenges, ask, what are we assuming here? What are the industry assumptions about engaging employees? Make a list and then think about what would happen if you did the opposite. Seelig says this is a hard exercise, because a lot of our assumptions are deeply ingrained. “Cirque du Soleil challenged assumptions about what a circus is. Instead of entertainment for kids, they turned it into a high-end event for adults that competes with the theatre or opera,” she says.

Seeking answers is the norm. However, seeking the right question is a radical trend. Are you willing to ask?

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