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Big Ideas

Brainstorming 2.0: Making Ideas That Really Happen

Brainstorming shouldn't stop when the new ideas rain down. To truly make ideas happen, we have to articulate an idea execution plan and then ask hard questions.

One of the most common questions we hear at 99U is: “How do I get more out of my brainstorming sessions?” While brainstorming sessions have become perhaps the most iconic act of creativity, we still struggle with how to give them real utility.

The problem of course is that most brainstorming sessions conclude prematurely. We all love to dream big and come up with “blue sky” ideas. We’re less fond of diving into the nitty-gritty details of creative execution. As a result, we spend 90% of our time coming up with a bunch of great ideas, and maybe 10% (if any!) of our time discussing how to actually make those ideas happen.

So how can we retool our approach to brainstorming to make it more effective? Let’s take a look at the “brainstorming” process of one of the most successful creative visionaries of all time: Walt Disney.

Disney’s rigorous creative process involves 3 distinct phases of idea development, each of which is designed to unfold in a separate room. While the “rooms” started as a literal part of Disney’s process, they also serve as a helpful metaphor for the various steps we should take in our own attempts to develop new ideas.

Step 1 asks “WHAT are we going to do?”

It’s all about dreaming big. Any idea, no matter how absurd, can and should be suggested. Here, you are defining the big, bold objectives that will shape your project.

Room Setup: Airy rooms with high-ceilings are the best locations for thinking big. The team should sit in a circle facing each other to promote collaboration and creative flow.

Mentality: Any idea is fair game. This step is not about feasibility, it’s about surprise. Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Step 2 asks “HOW are we going to do it?”

Now the focus is on creative execution. How will the idea be implemented? Who’s doing which tasks? What’s the timeline? In Disney’s case, this stage would involve sketching out characters, discussing plot, and ultimately building out storyboards.

Room Setup: A practical room with a large dry-erase board or wall facilitates strategic planning. The team should sit in a semi-circle facing the board as everyone participates in the execution planning process.

Mentality: This is the step where you role up your sleeves and fill in the blanks. You may find a gem of an idea from the first step that needs to be fleshed out. During this phase, seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility. When something doesn’t make sense, question it.

Seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility.

Step 3 asks “WHY are we doing this?”

And, “Is this the right approach?” In this final phase, the critic enters the fray, asking hard questions. Is the plan really gelling? Are their unwieldy aspects that need to get cut? Are you meeting the overall project objective?

Room Setup: Analytical thinking is best done in smaller, more constrained spaces. (The Disney crew used a small room under the stairs.) The team sits in a single row facing the project plan, which promotes criticism of the project, but not individual people.

Mentality: Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts. In step two, you’re likely to get lost in the weeds. The third step provides the perspective from the balcony as opposed to the dance floor. In this phase, consider your plan in the context of your business and your long-term mission.

Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts.

Where traditional brainstorming approaches would probably have us patting ourselves on the back and adjourning the meeting after Step 1, Disney’s method goes deep: it’s methodical, it’s disciplined, and it’s time-intensive.

Brainstorming should be creative and subsequently practical. The various “rooms” prompt us to take the right mentality at the right time, ultimately giving great ideas the thoughtful consideration they require to see the light of day.

For more tips on collaborating with a creative team, whether you’re in the office or outside of it, check out our Self-Management Superhero post.

How Do You Work?

What’s your approach to action-oriented brainstorming?

Do you have any tips for managing new ideas through to completion?

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (35)
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  • GraphicDesignBoss

    I would add another couple of critical factor in getting better results out of brainstorming.

    1) Set up the time at the right time of the day:
    – Don’t do it after lunch when everyone has the post lunch snooze.
    – Don’t do it at the end of the day when everyone wants to go home.
    – Do it when you know your team is operating at maximum creative capacity. For example I know I am at my most creative around 10:30am-12:30pm. I’ve had my morning coffee. I’ve caught up any pressing work. I feel like I’ve already accomplished something.

    2) Get people to pre-prepare. Get people to set at least 15-30 minutes aside before the meeting to do some development on their own. You are much more likely to get a good result if people feel like they have a seed of an idea to bring. The group can own the idea and take it forward. Win all around.

  • Austin

    Its funny when I started learning the ways of design I though brainstorming was almost a waste of time, don’t get me wrong I love to dream big as you stated. As I learn more of the trade I am more intrigued to just keep learning. When you apply the things that are taught to you such as brainstorming and then taking action its amazing what you can get done. As if I wish I knew then what I know now. I try to perform every strategy that I learn about and find out what works for me. So my approach to brainstorming is almost like Walt Disney, Only instead of three rooms i try and do the three stages (what are we going to do?,etc) in a different area of which space that is available to me. Like the armchair creative introduced by Mark McGuinness. Different surroundings allow me to change my mind set, And i’m getting to the point where I like it to be quite. Though I am still a rookie and have much to learn, the best tip I can provide that has worked for me is always keep learning. Drive yourself to the 99% perspiration, always see a project through even if you don’t like it. I find that someone could make that idea better for themselves or find a way to make the idea better for you. Never be afraid to share your ideas. Though a long haul it always pays off in the end.!/Agordish

  • Kwennerberg

    Brainstorming, like singing, cannot be done by everyone. WHO the participants are is essential.

  • Cape Town

    a great post with practical implementable ideas. Thanks

  • thesis

    Very useful information! Thank you!

  • Tomas Luoma

    Hi GraphicDesignBoss. Very good addings to a good post. Thank you.

  • A Lopez

    On the contrary, singing can be achievable by anyone. You just don’t expect someone who has never used their diaphragm properly or has good diction to sing as well as an opera singer.

    Likewise, don’t expect someone who has never brainstormed before to start brainstorming.

    Like this site suggests, it’s all about the 99 per cent =D

  • Martin Risseeuw

    Really good post. I also like to reverse brainstorming think about things that won’t work and than think about the opposite things of those things.

  • Martin Risseeuw

    I don’t agree with you Kwennerberg. I think evreyone can learn how to do a good brainstorm session. Ofcourse it’s easier when your brainstorming with people whol have experience with brainstorming.

    But I think there are some tricks to start brainstorming and get your creative ideas flowing. You just need to think outside the box.

  • Binita

    I work with a Creative Thinking specialist called Debs and she isn’t into brainstorming so much but ‘Creative Thinking’. Its a more structured system and I have found its so much more effective. I commissioned her to develop the Think Tool for my new Web app to help work through ideas better. The comments coming back from people who have tried it are ‘Amazing!’

    So I feel that brainstorming can be so much for effective if its given some structure like the Disney crew who seem to really have got the technique mastered.

    Cheers for your useful as ever posting. 99% rocks!

  • Guest

    You’re right. Too much of ideation is focused on generating the big ideas. We so often hear (with great jubilation) “We generated 250 ideas!/500 ideas!/1000 ideas!” So what! All you have at that point is spaghetti.

    Innovation success is not only in the generation of new ideas. Success has three variables: 1) alignment of the whole organization, from the CEO -> to operating management -> to project-level implementors behind one strategic innovation agenda before ideation begins, 2) creativity, which is the easiest of the three variables to achieve, and 3) successful execution that motivates customers to buy while stimulating growth for the company.

    The trouble with most ideation is that it asks innovation teams to look at ideas as entities. Innovators view new ideas as a composite of pieces; separate words and phrases that don’t necessarily need to be lumped together as originally stated. One famous story is about Alistair Pilkington, a British glass maker who in 1952 wished he could “float” molten glass on water. While others laughed he experimented for 7 years until he discovered that molten glass could be floated on molten tin. It’s called the Float Method and it’s the way most glass is made today. The breakthrough was in the floating. The “you can’t do that” was in the water. The process of great ideation provides for both the spaghetti and the thinking process that Pilkington instinctively knew how to do. It can also be taught.

    Mark Sebell, Founder & CEO, Creative Realities

  • Guest

    Totally agree.

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  • Kwennerberg

    My comment about brainstorming participants is based on first-hand experience, not theory or prediction. Making participants learn the skill puts another layer between the status quo and change.
    I must comment on the usage of the popular phrase, “Think outside the box”. Yes, after you have exhaustively thought within the box. If one STARTS outside the box one may re-invent the wheel or create something only novel but not useful. A brainstorming session can indeed start with group thinking comprehensively within the box, then move outside the box.

  • Rahul r

    so nice

  • Alex Getty

    I tend to have the same problem… I spend lots of time coming up with ideas and spend almost no time actually working those idea’s out or implementing them. I end up with huge, unmanageable lists of ideas or things to do and never get around to doing them. I’ll try this approach and see if it helps!

  • Binita

    Hi Alex,

    I feel I must come to the rescue here… Because I totally understand this and have the same problem I have spent a lot of my own money and a solid 9 months creating – Its specifically for people like you and me who need some help grounding us and focusing. So its a place to set up IdeasBooks and there is an Amazing Think Tool (just try it you will see) and a Community for inspiring others and getting inspired.

    I would love it if you could try it (there is a FREE 30 day trial!) and let me know if it can help.

    Good luck. You are probably having some amazing ideas and not following them up!
    Best wishes

  • markus

    I sometimes use AnswerGarden for very fast online brainstorming. This way you don’t have to listen to long rants and discussions.

  • Adam Kumpf

    At Teague, we’ve been experimenting with some alternatives to the brainstorming process typically used for innovation. We’ve created so many walls full of sticky notes; our problem is not a shortage of interesting ideas, but has become one of time and focus.

    Creationstorming is about making concrete decisions. Ideas are critically debated in the moment, balancing feasibility and impact with respect to the project’s timeframe and goals.

    It’s still evolving and we’d love to hear your feedback. More info about Creationstorming can be found here:

  • Karen Lo

    How is MyIdeasBook different from Evernote ?

  • Charlotte Clark

    Was reading about this the other day in Making Ideas Happen. I use Mindnode for brainstorming, it’s a pretty clever tool. My Dad swears by a quiet room, pen and paper though, because it’s so flexible.

  • Binita

    Hello k4ren,
    Well, its nothing like Evernote in the way you use it or the way it is designed. Evernote is really amazing… however MyIdeasBook is for artists/visual creatives who do not want a tool you have to be techno-savvy to use or that has a big learning curve attached to using it. MyIdeasBook also provides a Thinking Tool and a Community inspiration page. Its created for a niche customer base – if you get it you get it – if you dont you dont. Thanks for asking! b*

  • Jim Dominic

    No comments should be allowed on any idea until idea generation is finished. Remove all the chairs from the room, so that nobody can assume a position of authority. Pass the marker to the next person so that no one person gets to write all the ideas on the board, because it is a position of control. Anyone who criticizes an idea before it is time for discussion should be kicked out of the meeting, executives included. Absolutely no PowerPoint in any way, shape, or form.

  • Kwennerberg

    RE: Chair arrangement
    I read an anecdote of a meeting at which the #1 boss was not expected to attend, so the #2 man assumed the position at “the head of the table”. The #1 boss showed up and #2 started to awkwardly vacate the throne. The #1 said, “I don’t have to sit there– everybody knows role.”

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