Most brainstorming meetings focus on generating solutions.
A person (usually a manager) pulls a few relevant parties into a room expecting them to spontaneously produce answers to a pressing problem or challenge.
This approach amplifies all the risks of a normal meeting—namely, vocal people speaking too much, while quieter folks don’t speak enough.
But beyond encouraging unhelpful social dynamics, it’s also a counterproductive way to stoke creativity.
In an HBR article on brainstorming techniques, an executive director at MIT outlines a unique process for better brainstorming deemed the question burst.
In this article, we’ll explore how you can apply this brainstorming technique to energize your next session and ultimately arrive at better solutions.
Welcome unexpected participants for fresh perspectives
With traditional brainstorming, individuals perform better than groups and the focus is squarely on finding answers.
With the question burst method, brainstorming means generating meaningful questions rather than answers—and you’ll need to involve others in the process to get it right.
While most people approach brainstorming by inviting people close the problem, HBR recommends also involving a few others who don’t have any direct experience with the issue.
This is an effective brainstorming technique for a few reasons.
First, people who lack an attachment to the problem aren’t hampered by the traditional ways of thinking about it. Second, their unfamiliarity with the status quo makes them more likely to approach the challenge with fresh eyes.
When you welcome a variety of perspectives to a brainstorming session, you provide the group with access to a wider knowledge pool and set the stage for surprising and innovative ideas to surface in the process.
Craft a concise story and set the rules of engagement
Managers often make the mistake of bogging brainstorming requests down with too many details.
To avoid losing momentum with an unnecessarily long explanation, HBR recommends limiting your pitch to two minutes.
This will not only force you to focus on crafting a high-level description of the challenge at hand, but it will also enable you to engage meeting participants without inadvertently suggesting which questions they should ask.
Here’s a two-part recipe for your next brainstorming pitch:
- Describe how things will improve if the problem were solved
- Briefly explain why you’re stuck or why the problem isn't yet solved
But before group brainstorming can commence, you’ll want to make sure everyone involved understands two crucial rules to effectively using the question burst method:
Don’t allow anything but questions
People are only allowed to contribute questions during a question burst brainstorming session. Redirect anyone who offers solutions or jumps at the chance to respond to the questions of others.
Don’t permit any introductions or preambles
The meeting host isn’t the only one who should resist the urge to over-explain. Make sure participants understand that framing their questions before asking them might influence others to view the problem from their perspective.
Record questions verbatim for four minutes
As a brainstorming technique, one of the chief strengths of the question burst approach is that it creates a safe space for anyone to contribute without fear of being wrong.
But if your brainstorming pitch stirs excitement—as it should—the group may generate more questions than initially anticipated.
This is a good problem to have, but it also requires the meeting host to take meticulous meeting notes. And unlike other meetings where effective note-taking might mean paraphrasing or using shorthand, every question that comes up during a group brainstorming session should be documented exactly as it was asked.
You’ll want to skip the whiteboard for these sessions and instead record everything electronically to better control for accuracy. You’ll also want to avoid unconsciously censoring any brainstorming ideas that don’t immediately seem sound.
Lastly, limit your session to four minutes to enhance creative output.
Use meeting notes to create an action plan
According to HBR, most question burst sessions produce at least one question that leads to a new way of thinking about and solving a problem.
This is where your carefully documented meeting notes come in. Once the brainstorming session is over, review your notes to identify anything that suggests a novel pathway, flagging any question that stands out as intriguing or different.
One way to help winnow your options during this process is the “five whys” technique: For every question flagged, ask why it seems important. Then ask why again.
As you gain more insight into why certain questions seem more relevant or applicable than others, you’ll also expand the realm of potential solutions.
But it’s not enough to have a list of potential solutions—commit to the one that makes the most sense by devising a plan that your team can act on in the short-term.