The Long List

When developing ideas, we’re always told to shoot for quality over quantity. Here’s a powerful technique that flips the model, and drives higher quality by way of quantity…

In my undergraduate work at the University of Florida, I was an Advertising major. One time, I was in a course about creating magazine and newspaper ads. The class was divided into teams, and we were assigned the task of developing headlines for a Florida State Lottery ad campaign. No problem, we thought, until the professor dropped the bomb. Each group was to return with no less than 200 headline ideas. We had sixty minutes. Wowza!

After the shock wore off, we gathered as a team and got right to work. The first 20 ideas were easy and obvious. Next came the edgy ones. Then the inappropriate ones. Then the gross ones and the bizarre ones and the stupid ones. We had to really dive deep and force ourselves to stretch our creative capacities to the limit. When the entire class regrouped, each team was instructed to share their top five ideas (my favorite headline: “What will you say to your boss?”). It turned out that every group’s best ideas were the ones toward the end of their list. None of the groups shared idea #5, #11, or #19. The best ideas were #163 and #177 and #192. By forcing us to generate a Long List of ideas, it pushed our thinking and got us to discover our best work.

In using The Long List, quantity will ultimately help drive quality. The length requirement will push you beyond the obvious and into the zone of the new and unique. Putting this technique to work for you is both easy and powerful if you follow these four simple steps.

1) Articulate the objective. To begin, make sure you have a very specific desired output. “Ideas for speeding up the 2nd shift production line at the Austin, Texas plant” is a better target than “increasing overall operational efficiency”.
2) Set your idea goal. Next, set a time limit that forces you to generate a high volume of ideas without putting too much thought into each of them. The rate of 2 per minute is a good starting point. Examples of good Long List Idea Targets are: 100 ideas in 50 minutes; or 200 ideas in an afternoon.
3) Do short bursts. It is very difficult to stay in the creative zone for long periods of time, especially if you don’t do it every day. You will see much better results by doing four, 15-minute bursts with break in-between instead of a full 60-minutes straight.
4) Let it rip. Remember, this is an exercise to get a high number of ideas out, which later on can be evaluated. Don’t hold anything back. Make sure this is a fun, no-limits effort.

This week, take the Long List out for a test drive. Force yourself and your team beyond the obvious solutions where most people stop. Push to discover new insights, and in this case, let quantity drive quality.