We’ve all struggled to generate good ideas. From trying to invent the next industry transformation to imagining a better way to run your team meeting, the creative act is critically important, yet often frustrating. Have you ever wondered how the most successful people on the planet discover their breakthroughs? Having interviewed and studied the world’s notable billionaires, I can assure you that they skip traditional brainstorming altogether.
In fact, traditional brainstorming is a perfectly designed exercise to yield mediocre results. People share their boring ideas but keep the big ones to themselves. The culprit: fear. Fear of looking foolish, fear of failing, fear of offending others, fear of being judged.
To slay the dragon of fear, here are the top 12 most powerful brainstorming techniques that you’ve probably never heard of. They’re surprising, effective, and specifically designed to obliterate fear in order to unleash stunning creativity.
- RoleStorming – Instead of brainstorming as yourself (and being solely responsible for any ideas generated), here you get to brainstorm as someone else. In other words, you’ve generated ideas in character. First, select anyone you want to pretend to be – from movie star to mad scientist to villain to sports hero – and brainstorm as that person. This technique removes all fear and lets you look at the problem from an entirely new perspective. How would Steve Jobs tackle the issue at hand? Or Jay-Z? Or Ursula the Sea Witch? RoleStorming is one of the most productive (and fun) approaches to generating amazing ideas while removing the fear.
- The Bad Idea – With so much pressure to discover the perfect idea, we can easily get stuck. Here, try a brainstorming round looking for the worst ideas to your problem instead of the best. Make a list of every horrible, illegal, immoral, unethical, or just plain lousy idea you can think of. After you’ve exhausted the bad ideas, do a second round where you try to flip the bad concepts into good ones. The horrible ideas will push your creativity into uncharted territory. Then, it’s just a matter of adjusting the bad ones into great ones to unlock breakthroughs.
- Substitution – Removing sugar and replacing with artificial sweetener led to the diet soda explosion. Subbing out cramped seating for more room led to first class air travel. Changing the payment model from individual razor blade sales at retail stores to an online subscription allowed Dollar Shave Club to upend a mature industry. In this technique, examine your current approach and tinker with the individual elements. Explore substituting different approaches and ingredients with new ones in order to discover a fresh path forward.
- The Borrowed Idea – Chances are, the challenge or opportunity you’re facing is occurring somewhere else in the world. The key question to ask: where else? Where else is something similar occurring? If you run a busy hospital emergency room and are trying to figure out how to intake patients more efficiently, try looking at how cruise ships load and unload passengers during peak periods. The trick here is to see how your issue is being solved in another part of life in order to borrow that approach and adapt it to your field. Look in nature, high-tech, fashion, entertainment, sports, music, or even sci-fi. The idea you crave may already be out there, waiting for you to borrow it.
- Crazy 8’s – This technique pushes your creativity and removes executional concerns by making you visualize and draw your ideas. First, draw an empty comic strip grid that is four squares wide and two squares tall. Next, draw eight different ideas, one in each square, in eight minutes. Stick figures are fine; you don’t have to be Picasso here. The process of drawing your ideas without time to over-analyze them is a powerful way to tap into raw creativity and get the ideas flowing.
- The Reese’s Cup – “You’ve got your peanut butter in my chocolate… delicious!” Reese’s famously combined two distinct things into one, inventing the beloved peanut butter cup. In fact, many of the greatest inventions in history were created as the fusion of two existing things. A mashup of a chair and a bed became the La-Z-Boy recliner. An office space and a gym membership became WeWork. For this brainstorming session, invent ideas that represent the collisions of two existing forces. Eureka!
- Slither – Imagine your ideal competitor, even more powerful than the real-world existing ones. Let’s call them “Slither.” These guys have the best people, funding, clients, ideas, equipment, and access. They are your made-up nemesis. Fictitious industry leaders. The company that never makes a mistake or misses a number. Now, imagine that you worked at this idyllic organization and were brainstorming on the same problem or opportunity that’s currently vexing you. What ideas would Slither invent? How would Slither approach the challenge? By projecting into the minds of your ideal competitor, you remove fear and executional obstacles, freeing your creative mind from distraction and allowing you to stretch your imagination to new heights.
- The Judo Flip – First, make a list all the traditional ways you’d tackle the challenge you’re working on. How have you always done it before? How do industry veterans’ approach this? What is conventional wisdom? Next, draw a line down the page and on the other side of this magic line, write out the polar opposite approach to each of the traditional ones. If you sell cars and want to maximize profits, for example, you might Judo Flip painful customer negotiations with no-haggle pricing. If everyone else sells haircuts one at a time, your salon could Judo Flip into a monthly subscription for unlimited cuts. Pushing yourself to explore the exact opposite of existing approaches will awaken your creative genius. Judo Flip your challenges, opportunities, and threats into bold new concepts.
- EdgeStorming – Think of this as extreme brainstorming, the X-games of ideation. The rule of the exercise: every idea needs to be taken to the edge. What’s the most expensive approach? The least expensive? The biggest or smallest? By forcing yourself to only share exaggerated ideas, fear leaves the room along with incremental thinking. It’s way better to push too far and then have to reign in a big idea than have to bulk up the flimsy ones. Once the edgy ideas are on the board, you can always taper them down if needed, but this approach will bust through the typical pitfalls of painfully bland brainstorms.
- The Hot Potato. This technique involves a prop: any type of soft ball such as a tennis ball or a nerf football (for safety, we don’t suggest an actual hot potato). Sit your team in a circle and appoint one person outside the circle to take notes. Next, pose the challenge and then let the games begin. The ball is tossed randomly to one person who must shout out the first idea that comes to mind, which is recorded by the note taker. The ball is now tossed to another participant who has to quickly share another idea, and so forth. Play the Hot Potato for ten minutes, and you’ll have a powerful list of creative ideas. Due to the speed and design of the exercise, fear is dissipated while raw creativity is unlocked.
- Most Ideas Contest – Here, it’s a race for quantity instead of quality. Break into small teams and set a timer for 15 minutes. Offer up a small prize to the team that can generate the most ideas in the allotted time. Competitive nature combined with a focus on quantity ends up liberating the imagination. At the end of the sprint, you’ll likely find the ideas at the end of each team’s lists are the most powerful. After the obvious solutions are exhausted, the later ideas tend to be the most creative and effective. In other words, quantity actually drives quality.
- The World’s First – In this exercise, you’re only allowed to share ideas that begin with “the world’s first.” It could be the world’s first insurance policy for drones. Or the world’s first 3D-printed burger joint. What about the world’s first hotel that offers guests a warm chocolate chip cookie upon arrival? You may know that’s exactly what the DoubleTree Hotel did, and that simple idea is credited for much of their differentiated success. Brainstorming the world’s first will push your creativity to new heights and help you unlock bold possibilities.
If some of these techniques feel odd to you, you’re on the right track. They are specifically engineered to push you out of your normal comfort zone into that incredible region of your mind that creates artistry. If you prefer bland, ho-hum ideas, you’re welcome to stick with typical, vanilla brainstorming. But if you want to tap into a vast reservoir or creative capacity and discover legendary ideas, take these non-traditional approaches for a spin.
And who knows… maybe you’ll join the rarified billionaire’s club one you put these techniques to the test. Your creative genius awaits.