Active Thinking: A better way of brainstorming

Active Thinking LogoIf the question is identifying business growth opportunities, then the answer is likely to be a brainstorming session. It’s the most-commonly used creative-thinking process around the world. However, conventional brainstorming frequently fails to deliver the hoped-for ideas needed to deliver the required results. Some new and different ideas are always identified in a brainstorming session – but do you believe that’s the best output your team of skilled and experienced people was capable of?

Brainstorming is failing business today – and potentially has been doing so for many years. I’ve written before here on how inherently-inefficient traditional brainstorming is.

It encourages a passive, peaceful, wait-your-turn, unbounded type of thinking, which doesn’t cut it in today’s economic climate. Today’s more-demanding situations need a more-demanding process. A more-focused, harder-driven, yet stimulating approach to thinking – a process of Active Thinking. Where, with the same number of people, in the same period of time, you can achieve significantly better and more relevant outputs.

Setting up an Active Thinking session

Sponsor and facilitator roles

Know your mindThere are two roles involved in setting up an Active Thinking session. There’s the sponsor who needs the outputs, and the facilitator who runs the session. Frequently these two roles will be done by the same person. Whether they are or they aren’t – the preparation work is the same, so let’s assume there are two different people in this case. We’ll also assume there are six people involved in the session (in addition to the facilitator) – which is an optimal number of participants to aim for, and that the duration is ninety-minutes.

The Killer Question

Your Killer Question is that issue – which when answered well – will help you to achieve your goals. The sponsor will normally set the Killer Question – and the facilitator and sponsor jointly identify interesting areas they want to guide the participants through during the Active Thinking session. They can invite others to input regarding what additional areas have been missed. Circulate the Killer Question (not the areas) to the participants beforehand and ask them for feedback (well before the session) whether they feel the Killer Question needs to be changed.

Why do this: In an Active Thinking session it’s important that from the start, everyone is committed to addressing the Killer Question as set. Sort out any changes to it before the session starts to enable everyone to be fully committed to answering it.

Your Killer Question elements

The facilitator needs to have a framework of areas to explore which should be identified in advance of the Active Thinking session. You will need:

  • Three PRIMARY elements of the Killer Question, each printed large on an A4 sheet
  • Six SECONDARY elements of the Killer Question, each printed large on an A4 sheet
  • Three CHALLENGING elements of the Killer Question, each printed large on an A4 sheet.

Why do this: Defining these elements helps lead the participants through the richest areas of the Killer Question. These pre-identified areas offer the greatest chance for success based on the experience of the sponsor, facilitator – and other requested inputs prior to the event.

The PRIMARY elements are those where the bigger potential for success seems likely to lie. The SECONDARY elements are other interesting areas of potential opportunity, while the CHALLENGING elements are those which are edgy, unusual or exciting in some way.

There could be many different ways in which you break your Killer Question down; the choice is up to you. But the aim is to guide the participant’s thinking from one potentially rich area to the next, while ignoring the barren areas in-between. It minimises the wasted time and effort exploring areas deemed to be of little benefit.

An example of a Killer Question might be How can we get more customers to sign up for our new loyalty card?

If this was the question then a PRIMARY element might be If we were to co-brand the card, who would be a good business to work with?

A SECONDARY element may be How do we get more tradesmen to sign up for the card?

And a CHALLENGING element is What’s an innovative, rapid, promotional event we can do that would get national press coverage?

Prepare the ground

Come with the appropriate mind-set

When you invite the participants, ask them for permission to go beyond brainstorming. Invite them to be involved in a better thinking-process that you are running, and ask them to come prepared for a change to the way thinking is done in your business.

Why do this: We’ve all had the rules of brainstorming crammed into our heads so many times that it’s hard to get them out – unless changes are made. Explain that using a different approach – Active Thinking instead of brainstorming – is a different way of thinking. So we need to forget the old brainstorming rules as there’ll be new guidelines to suit a very different process.

There’s an automatic – and potentially negative – association to brainstorming, and this expectation needs to be broken. So refrain from calling it Brainstorming and instead refer to it as an Active Thinking session.

The guidelines for the session

Use these as the guide for running your session. Explain to the participants the different approach you’re going to be taking.

  1. Your company’s future growth is one of the most important and challenging subjects you face. However, brainstorming often tries to encourage a jolly environment – which runs counter to the serious nature of the issue at hand. Would your Board of Directors be expecting such a fun, happy-go-lucky approach to this issue when they depend on your brainstorming session to identify this growth? Imagine the Board are observing your session – make it mentally-stimulating yet stretching of the mind. There’s no need to focus on fun. A keen, professional mind loves to be stretched!
  2. We need to get into the flow zone where we can create a stream of creative consciousness. To help create this state, much of the thinking is done in silence – that’s how we get our best ideas. As the facilitator, discourage people from making comments except when you’ve asked for them. Your aim is to maintain the optimum environment for exceptional mental flow.
  3. For the period of time set aside for your Active Thinking session, strive to keep an intense focus on your issue. At the start get their permission for you to aggressively work their minds, and ask for absolute commitment to achieving this for the next hour or so. You have many years of collective experience in the room just waiting for you to tap into it. Make the best possible use of it that you can.
  4. Only allow snap-feedback where each person briefly reads out their one most-interesting idea from that particular exercise. The purpose of the snap-feedback is to gauge the extent to which people are moving into interesting areas with their most-interesting idea.
  5. There will not be any assessing or selecting of ideas during the session. It will be the responsibility of the facilitator and sponsor to sort-through and review the output afterwards.


Vile venues

Companies only have so many meeting rooms that can host a brain storming session – and you’ve probably been in them all many times before. The magnolia colour walls, grey carpeting squares and brown cushioned chairs combine to quench every last creative spark that might wish to surface. The first time you run an Active Thinking session you may want to use one of these standard meeting rooms. However, with practice you’ll realise that you don’t need whiteboards or wall space – and you can run an Active Thinking session almost anywhere that’s got peace and quiet. When you are confident with the process, look for some different locations to stimulate the thinking.

Why do this: If those rooms could talk, their brainstorming personality would need heavy psychotherapy. Any creative session needs uplifted energy – so is this room bringing back memories of great successes from the past – or an anticipation of another wasted hour about to happen?

White-boarding or water-boarding?

Ever noticed how a new idea appears in your mind as a fleeting moment of insight? If you focus on this tenuous, ephemeral thought you can bring it to life – but only if you grasp it in the moment. It’s difficult to do this when sitting around a white-board where people are constantly putting forward their own ideas that they expect you to be focussing on. Making new mental connections that are meaningful often requires quiet and personal focus time – something lacking when sitting around a white-board. It’s a little like water-boarding someone and expecting this to stimulate their creativity.

Why do this: To encourage the new mental connections to form, there will be no led-discussions around a white-board. Instead all thinking is performed in silence to encourage access to each individual’s flow of conscious thought – and to encourage the snowball effect of ideas building on each other in their minds.

Kick-off the session with the Killer Question

Killer QuestionsHave your sponsor set the scene. If the sponsor is a senior manager who can’t attend the session, it’s a powerful kick-starter to begin the session with them explaining the Killer Question, why it’s important to them, and what they will do with the best ideas going forward. And then they can leave. Sometimes this alleviates the HiPPO effect where the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) overly influences the output from the participants.
At this point give each person three sheets of A4 paper and a marker pen and ask them to write the Killer Question down three times – big and bold.

Why do this: It’s an unusual start to a session – but the aim is to embed the Killer Question deep into the subconscious of the participants. It helps to flush the myriad of issues floating around the participants’ minds from their previous meeting, and to replace those with the focus topic that the Active Thinking will address.

Brain dump

Start the session by allowing people to empty their heads of the ideas that are at the forefront of their minds. When they claim to have finished, insist that each person write at least three more ideas on the sticky notes. This flushes out the lingering ideas that are ‘already known’. Don’t bother getting feedback on these. Just collect in all the ideas, then move on to the next exercise.

Why do this: By emptying the participants’ minds, it allows you to lead them through the journey of specific areas where they focus on your issue without having to unload the baggage of old ideas that they’d brought with them.

Think inside the box

think_inside_the_boxThe sky’s the limit. Think outside the box. Blue-sky thinking. There are no limits on ideas.
Misdirected aphorisms like these encourage ideas and solutions which end up being way-beyond the realms of your area of responsibility, available budgets & timeframes, and also have no reasonable practicality of being adopted.

Great thinking knows what the limit is and hovers around this limiting border, trying not to stray too far from it. The unfettered thinking of brainstorming frequently goes way beyond the limits of practicality and into the realm of fantasy-land.

Read out the first of your PRIMARY elements and allow three-minutes for people to capture any ideas within this element. If the writing down of ideas slows, you may want to embellish the primary element in some way. Only give one or two guiding sentences and avoid being too prescriptive – you just want to encourage a little latitude in the participant’s thinking around this specific element. When this cycle is finished ask each person to briefly state their one most-interesting idea. Then pass the A4 sheet with this primary element written on it around and tell the participants to stick their piles of sticky-note ideas onto it. You now have all the answers to that particular element conveniently on one sheet of paper.

Now move on and do the same with your second PRIMARY element, and after collecting that in, do the same with the third element. All your PRIMARY elements have now been considered.

Why do this: You know what your parameters of success are – so work to them. Compared to a design or creative agency – you have many restrictions. You have limited resources and capacity and skill and appetite for risky things. Even though they may be espoused – the adversity to risk will preclude any of the ideas that are deemed to be too extreme. The creative industry is different to you, for a design agency may need a wild idea to work with – but in the typical business scenario, wild will usually mean too risky.

Extended individual Killer Question elements

Give each person one of the pre-printed A4 sheets that state one of the SECONDARY elements. Ask each person to address the issue in front of them by placing their sticky-note ideas onto the sheet. After two-minutes, everyone passes their sheet to the person on their left. No feedback is given at this stage.

Each person repeats the process for the new issue in front of them. They have to first read the ideas that are already stuck on the paper and then add more of their own. Allow three minutes for this cycle, after which everyone again passes their sheet to the person on their left. No feedback is given at this stage.

Each person again repeats the process for the new issue in front of them. They have to first read the ideas that are already stuck on the paper and then add more of their own. Allow five minutes for this cycle. At this point each person states the issue that is in-front of them and gives snap-feedback on the one most-interesting idea of all those stuck on their sheet. The facilitator then collects in all the sheets with their sticky notes on.

Extended paired Killer Question elements

Break into pairs and give each pair one of the A4 printed CHALLENGING Killer Question elements. They have five-minutes to address this issue. At the end of this exercise, one person from each pair states the issue they have and gives snap-feedback on the one most interesting of all the ideas stuck on their sheet. The facilitator then collects in all the sheets with the sticky notes on.

Edgy opportunity areas

Ask each person to think of one ‘edgy, peculiar or exciting’ area where they believe some interesting solutions might lie. Get them to write it down on an A4 sheet in a similar style to the question elements that have been posed before.
The participants then spend one-minute individually to address the issue in front of them by putting sticky-note ideas onto the sheet. After the time is up pass the sheet to the person on the left and repeat the exercise for two-minutes. After this time is up, pass the sheet to the person on the left and repeat again for four-minutes. At this point each person states the issue that is in-front of them and gives snap-feedback on the one most-interesting idea of all those stuck on their sheet.

The facilitator then collects all the sheets with the sticky notes on – and at this point the exercise is essentially complete.

Closing out

You’ve just run an intense ninety-minute Active Thinking session and you’ve worked the participants hard. Ask them how they feel about the process and the outcomes. Was it usefully different? What specific new perspectives or opportunities did they encounter?

Engage the subconscious

Ask the participants to take away one of the A4 sheets on which they wrote the Killer Question down. This issue is now deep within their subconscious. Get them to look at it just before they go to bed – or before they take a shower/bath etc. This will be an interesting exercise for them to engage their subconscious. If they happen to have any more interesting ideas that occur to them on the spur of the moment, ask them if they’d send them to the facilitator in an email to be included in the pool of ideas. The subconscious is an amazingly powerful tool and this is might be an interesting demonstration of it at work for them – and you!

Explain what’s next

The next stage is for the facilitator and sponsor to whittle down the ideas to identify the ones that fall within your remit to execute, or your domain of control. It’s likely that only 10-15% of the ideas will make the cut. Be ruthless – and if you have the experience, allow your intuition to decide what does – and doesn’t – make the cut.

Ask the participants which of them will be willing to give feedback on the selected ideas in a few days from now. From these ideas you will choose the ones that will help you achieve your Killer Question in the most appropriate manner.

Your first Active Thinking cycle is now complete. Well done!

Active Thinking workbook

The Active Thinking project workbook is now available here or online from Amazon. It contains templates for five-team and five-individual Active Thinking exercises.

Chris Thomason is Managing Director of Ingenious Growth, a business growth design company. He is also the author of The Delicate Force which explains what drives our ideas, inspiration and creativity. The Delicate Force is also available from the Amazon online bookstore.


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