A great brainstorm starts with a great brainstorming question. Do not expect the right answers if you ask the wrong questions. But sometimes coming up with the right brainstorming question feels like you’re searching for the holy grail. How do you find the holy grail? By reading this article, that’s how!
This article contains two essential steps and four important checks you should always do before you start your brainstorm. And while we’re at it, we will also teach you one trick on how to completely change up your question for some very creative results. Onwards you go!
Step 1: One goal, one sentence
Let’s imagine that the customer service of your company is lacking. There are many reasons. The employees are not doing their best. The ratings are low. Customers are not happy. Sales are not too great. The manager is not doing his job well. Etc.
Although probably all this information is relevant for the brainstorm, you need to make sure everybody knows the key question. What are we really working on here?
So how do you best introduce the problem you want to solve to the participating brainstormers? First, write down the problem in a couple of sentences. And then rewrite it in just one sentence that summarizes the purpose of the session.
“We want to improve our customer service.”
Step 2: Three famous openings
Most brainstorming questions should start in one of three ways. For good reason!
- How.. (might we improve our customer service?)
- In what ways can.. (we improve our customer service?)
- Design.. (how to improve our customer service?)
Often it is enough to rephrase the goal into one with one of these openings. These will prevent you from asking a closed-ended question by mistake. Open up! Because open-ended questions tend to give people more room for ideas.
☑️ Check 1: Broad focus and narrow focus
Not entirely satisfied with your question? Check whether your question should be broader or narrower. Pro-tip: find the happy medium.
If you brainstorm with a broad question, it usually yields general ideas. A question like ‘How might we improve our customer service?’ generates answers of often only a few words, such as ‘more staff’, ‘simpler instructions’, ‘let’s be more friendly’.
Take a narrow question such as ‘How might we improve our customer service using a half-page magazine advertisement targeted at single pensioners in Amsterdam to promote usage of using Twitter to contact our department?’ After a couple of ideas, your brainstormers tend to ask questions. “Why did you choose a magazine?” “Or why Twitter?” “Why only retired people?”
☑️ Check 2: Make it challenging
Put some extra power into your question by making the goal challenging.
Make it measurable
Add numbers to your question. That way it feels more like a target and a challenge. So instead of: ‘How might we improve our customer service?’, try
‘How might we get 80% of our customers to give our customer service a 5-star rating?’. Don’t be afraid to show some ambition. This is a challenge, after all.
Insert restrictions or wishes
Believe it or not, but restrictions can be an excellent stimulant for creativity. Yes, you can use narrow brainstorming questions to your advantage! Add a location, a target group or a specific product. This will evoke a bigger variety of ideas.
‘How can we fight poverty in the Western World?’ provides different answers than ‘How can we reduce poverty among young people under 15 in Europe?’ would do.
Adding wishes can give a brainstorm tremendous imagination. A question such as ‘Design an energy-neutral and sustainable housing block’ is perfectly fine as a brainstorming question. But these kinds of technical questions could use add a touch of inspiration.
Adding the wish ‘We want to bring people together’ really adds something. Watch this: ‘Design an energy-neutral and sustainable housing block that brings together the people who live there.’
☑️ Check 3: Adding the problem owner
Add the problem owner and the question often becomes a much more pressing matter.
‘How might we improve our customer service?’ will get a lot more urgency if you change it to ‘How should our front office improve our customer service to keep our loyal customers happy?’.
☑️ Check 4: Replace jargon and all-purpose words
If certain words seem to annoy you, you’d better replace them! Especially when terminology such as synergy, audience segmentation, empowerment and content management sneak into your question, be wary.
“How might we empower our customer journey experts to synergize with our client base and validate the blah blah blah.”
Jargon and all-purpose words could lead you on a path of abstract ideas and make it difficult for laypeople to participate. Keep it real, keep it simple.
BONUS: Creative questions
Substitute elements of your brainstorming question
Do you want the brainstorm to give you some surefire creative results? That is where Brain Fuel comes in.
Let’s use this example for the umpteenth time: ‘How can we improve our customer service?’. Now let’s change or add locations, problem owners, or solutions. They do not have to have anything to do with your situation at all, on the contrary!
The Transporter: ‘How might we improve our customer service in Japan?’
The Superhero: ‘How might Nelson Mandela improve our customer service?’
The Deserted Island: ‘How might we improve our customer service using a whip?’
If you want to go all the way, you could always the Brain Fusion method, in which you substitute several elements in one question. For example: ‘How can a jellyfish improve our customer service for Cleopatra in an elevator? Now this will get you some strange, specific and creative solutions! Later in your session, you can transform these crazy ideas into solutions that you’d never come up with if you had used a realistic question.
Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask yourself the question “Is my brainstorming question good enough?”. Well begun is half done, after all!
Do you want to learn more about ideation? Do you want to complement this article? Do you want to yell at me for some reason? Find me at Brain Fuel or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Always happy to help and happy to get help!