When you think you’re out of ideas, think again

May 26 2015

Brainstorming has always been a random process for me. I’d sit down for a maximum of ten minutes and try to think of the best possible idea as quickly as possible so I could just move on in the process.

The results of a day of brainstorming hang on the wall. Almost a hundred small sticky notes fill a matrix and more ideas scrawled in marker cover four giant sticky notes. Photo by Emily Gregoire.

The results of a day of brainstorming hang on the wall. Almost a hundred small sticky notes fill a matrix and more ideas scrawled in marker cover four giant sticky notes. Photo by Emily Gregoire.

Reese News Lab brainstorming sessions are nothing like that. We spent almost a week slinging as many ideas around as we could. For the first two days, the 11 of us spent hours jotting random ideas about the three topics: improving court transparency, building community consensus through comments and using data to provide information about the places people care about. Every idea, no matter how crazy, went on the giant sticky notes on the wall. No judgement. No analysis.

After brainstorming for two days, we split into teams based on the topics that interested us most and we kept brainstorming. By that point, I thought I was out of ideas. How could I possibly think of more when we’d just spent two days thinking of hundreds of ideas?

When the Lab’s energy died, Executive Director John Clark brought everyone together and we played silly games for 15 minutes at a time. From doing random word association chains to passing imaginary heads around, all the games were pretty silly on the surface but they got our creativity flowing and urged us to stop limiting our ideas.

Once we split into teams, I felt better equipped to focus on the single topic which, for my team, is improving court transparency. We devoted all of our energy to generating as many ideas as we could for an hour at a time and, when our brains were almost dead, we picked a few of the overarching themes and did a little research into them. Have these ideas already been done? Why haven’t they been done already? Who wants these products?

Then we went back to brainstorming. Yet again, I doubted I could possibly think of any more ideas. It turns out it’s impossible to run out of ideas; you just have to add constraints.

My favorite brainstorming method is the matrix because it allows me to focus on one set of constraints at a time. The matrix is a grid system where four categories are placed along the x-axis and four different categories are placed along the y-axis. At the intersection of one y-category and one x-category, we had to brainstorm ideas that addressed both topics. Picking a square in the grid allowed us to add focus to our ideas. For example, one square in the grid might be geared toward lawyers using mobile apps while another might be geared toward journalists using public records documents. Instead of trying to pull ideas out of an endless set of possibilities, which quickly got overwhelming, my team and I could put all our energy into solving one set of problems at a time.

Once we brought out the matrix, my team spent two minutes thinking of as many ideas as possible for each of the 16 squares in the grid. By the end of the hour, we had thought of 94 new ideas. Some we kept; the rest we threw out. But now we could take the ideas we liked most from the whole week and move on to the narrowing-down phase of the process.


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