Why a brainstorm can feel like a dull form

Albert Einstein already said it: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” And that is where most brainstorms get us into trouble.

We usually dive straight into the brainstorming on a specific problem, without checking first what the problem actually is and end up working on the wrong problem. Eventually you could end up investing a lot of time developing a wonderful solution – but for a different problem than the one you’re facing.


What is it really about?

An example of where traditional brainstorming could lead you astray: I vividly remember being asked to design a leadership development programme for a specific country at the beginning at my career at a multinational. After receiving some of the specifics, I set to work and created a wonderful programme.

The programme never made it when my boss presented it to the Executive Board. Turns out: in briefing me, my boss had presented the ‘solution: a development programme’ as the “problem: there is no development programme” to me in his initial briefing. Had I been more thorough on how this Executive Board request had come about, I would have figured out much earlier that we were actually facing a different problem altogether. Had I just asked: “why a development programme?”, the solution would have looked entirely different depending on whether the answer had been “our managers are underskilled”, “this year several managers left the company unexpectedly” or “we are having difficulty recruiting managers externally, so we want to promote more internal talent”.


“We usually drive straight into brainstorming without checking whether we’re actually working on the right problem”.

Another more recent example: as a female entrepreneur I was invited to join a brainstorming session to boost female entrepreneurship in the region. Some of the involved parties had recently signed a diversity pledge and wanted to increase female entrepreneurship regionally. A wonderful goal! In our first meeting, the initiative-takers wanted to brainstorm on what kind of event we could organise to stimulate female entrepreneurship and straight away we jumped into the type of workshops and coachings regional female entrepreneurs would find interesting.

That was the point when I jumped in to ask what it was really about. Are there actually fewer female entrepreneurs than women that would like to embark on the entrepreneurial journey? What is actually holding potential female entrepreneurs back from giving entrepreneurship a go? Are those self-imposed barriers, cultural ones, family-related issues? What can we learn from those that actually took the plunge? Turns out that none of the involved parties knew where the exact difficulty was nor what problem the potential solution should address.

In these cases, a traditional brainstorm is a really lame form. In these examples, they would have resulted in brainstorms on potential leadership programmes and female entrepeneurship events.


Why question-storming?

Question-storming – a large brainstorm for questions at the start of the session- lets you explore what is really going on. So, if you have a complex situation to resolve: get question-storming to find out what the problem really is and find new pathways. It works wonderfully in larger groups but is also powerful when you’re working individually.

Why does it work so well? As stated by Hal Gregerson in the Harvard Business Review in 2018, asking questions makes it easier to push past existing assumptions. This kind of open inquiry makes it possible to find a different perspective and imagine new possibilities. Over the years I’ve developed his reframing “question burst” technique into question-storming for my change management practice.


Let’s get question-storming

Question-storming has three phases:

  1. Get ready: select the opportunity or challenge you all want to work on and your team cares
  2. Spill the questions: take 5 minutes (time it!) to centrally jot down all the questions that come up. If you are facilitating the session, make sure no one actually starts answering the questions. Gently remind your participants that this is the time for questions only.
  3. Find the bright spot: is there any question that approaches the topic from an entirely new perspective? Could this be a new way of thinking that inspires a fresh take on the situation and makes you understand what it is really about?

By the way, should you feel like brainstorming on the question you came up with, get going! Then, after a great question-storm, a solid brainstorm is a perfectly acceptable and effective form.


The virtual experiment

Want to give question-storming a go online? Here are the three steps adapted to virtual question-storming:

  1. Make sure you select a challenge that your team cares about. Several important themes going on right now and you don’t know what your team is most interested in? Then add a poll through your online videoconferencing software or go for a multiple choice question in Menti or Sli.do.
  2. When it comes to spilling the questions, let people speak up straight away when working in a small group. Many people on the call? Then ask them to raise hands before speaking up. Make sure you collect all questions on a whiteboard or on a Mural or Miro sticky note board. I love making sure that everybody has the opportunity to speak up and prefer this to just asking participants to drop their questions straight into the chat or onto a board. Then, when everybody hears all the questions, the questions are more likely to build on one another than when you just ask everyone to put their questions in the chat simultaneously.
  3. Then when trying to find the bright spot: give people a minute to have a look at the Mural, Miro or Whiteboard. Then start a discussion on which question is insightful and allows us to dive deeper. In case you used Mural or Miro for step 2, you could even use the voting tool to let people select the most insightful questions that inspires a fresh take on the situation.


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