Two Stanford Professors Explain How to Produce Hundreds of World-Changing Ideas In 1 Hour Cramming everyone into a conference room to "spitball" is a disaster. But with some structure and a system, literally thousands of ideas are within reach.
A vague calendar event appears in your inbox. There's an urgent need for breakthrough thinking, and you're invited. It's got something to do with the big sales conference next week. Or a major new client. Or that recent wave of negative Yelp reviews. Doesn't matter. The important thing is that you show up. An organization's desperate, last-minute scramble for ideas is always democratic. Everyone is welcome to contribute solutions — as long as they sound feasible and involve zero risk to anyone with power at the table. It's time to brainstorm.
Inevitably, the big session gets squeezed into an awkward afternoon slot, when everyone is running on empty. Or, worse, near the end of the day, when people are anxious to head home or rest their Zoom-weary eyes.
If anybody knew how to solve this — stalling sales, escalating costs, a PR disaster — it wouldn't be a problem. It would just be a project, delegated to the appropriate individual or team. You call everyone together only when you don't see a clear path to a resolution. Forget answers. No one's even sure of the question. Ultimately, the corporate brainstorming session is an act of desperation: "Somebody's got to know how to handle this — I sure don't!"
Is anything more demoralizing than being forced to "innovate" this way? Considering the odds of looking foolish or ignorant while weighing in on an unfamiliar problem, it feels risky to say anything either ambitious or unusual. Safer to stay quiet and take a free ride on the contributions of others.
If you're really eager to get out of there, your best bet is to point out the lack of perfect and complete data on every aspect of the entire situation and its five-year outlook. This is a classic delaying tactic that can prompt leaders to punt the problem back to some poor soul for More Research. That'll be the last anyone hears about this particular problem for a while.
If freeriding or delaying doesn't work, you're out of luck. You're on the spot. You're going to have to generate a bunch of ideas if you ever want to see your loved ones again. Buckle up.
Rule one of the corporate brainstorm: nothing negative. You know better than to point out the flaws in an idea or say what can't be done. The CEO is wildly allergic to the word "no." Never say out loud what the company can't do, no matter how many times it has failed to do it in the past.
Rule two: nothing ambitious. None of the people who will have to follow through on your idea want some big new headache. So don't scare them with a pie-in-the-sky Hail Mary that sounds like a lot of effort. Aim for quick and inexpensive. You score the most points in a brainstorming session by elegantly slicing the Gordian knot: "Why don't we just do X and call it a day?" Drop the mic. Your work is done here. There's something palpable about the relief that sweeps the room when someone suggests an easy way out of a fix. Whew! Guess we won't need all these Post-it notes after all.
According to brainstorming logic, a good idea is (a) simple to execute and (b) can't possibly fail — even if the bar is set low enough to cross with ice skates. As soon as a suggestion meets these cheerless criteria, the meeting is essentially over.
If this seems like an exhausting and ineffective way to generate a handful of timid ideas, well, it is. In our experience, however, it remains standard practice at many, if not most, companies. We haven't even begun to list all the other ways brainstorming goes south, either. Hierarchical wrangling and turf wars. Preexisting agendas. Pet ideas that people refuse to drop. Negative Nancy/Nathan. On and on. Without effective guardrails and guidelines, group brainstorming brings out everyone's worst creative tendencies.
Is there any alternative?
Fortunately, yes. As codirectors of executive education at Stanford's Institute of Design (commonly known as "the d.school"), we teach students how to generate world-changing, breakthrough ideas. Years of research and experience have shown us that with a few adjustments to process and mindset, an hour in a conference room can deliver a payload of divergent thinking well in excess of the time and energy invested. But the first thing we know for sure is that maximizing a team's creative output means alternating between individual and collaborative idea generation. A study comparing solo work, group brainstorming, and a hybrid model — in other words, alternating between the two — found that the last approach produced the most ideas.
For best results, use an innovation sandwich: Bring people together for all the benefits of serendipity and shared knowledge. Then send them back to their desks for quiet contemplation of what they've discussed. Finally, gather them together once more to share their thoughts and strike even more sparks.
All of which brings us to the next thing we know leads to great new ideas. This is the importance of more.
The Idea Ratio
Contrary to popular opinion, successful creators aren't just people who come up with great ideas. The "equal-odds rule," put forward by psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton, states that the number of one's creative successes correlates to the total number of works created. More symphonies, more great symphonies. More mathematical theorems, more groundbreaking theorems. The equal-odds rule appears to apply to a staggering array of fields.
So what sets world-class innovators apart from everyone else? In Simonton's research, and in our own experience, the answer is the same: volume. Innovative people routinely generate many more possibilities than average. How much more is "enough"? How many ideas does it actually take to arrive at a great one? In our experience, the answer is something on the order of 2,000. Yes, that's a two with three zeros after it — 2,000-to-1. We call this the Idea Ratio.
To be clear, we're not telling you to go into a room and think up two thousand ideas on the spot. Creativity is iterative. When we suggest a ratio of 2,000 possibilities to 1 delivered solution, we're counting every combination, variation, and refinement along the entire innovation pipeline.
Credit for the Idea Ratio goes to our colleague Bob Sutton, who first saw evidence of it in his work at the design consultancy IDEO. Collaborating with a toy manufacturer, he learned that the company's inventors went through 4,000 product ideas to get to 200 working prototypes. Of those, a dozen or so were released commercially and two or three became legitimately successful. Once he identified this pattern, he started to see it everywhere that creators get consistently great results.
The Idea Ratio appears again and again in case studies of successful innovation. For example, Taco Bell's Insights Labs developed the category-annihilating Doritos Locos Tacos by starting with 30 or so core recipes and spinning those out into "untold variations," each of which required sampling. How many variations did then-product development leader Steve Gomez have to eat before landing on the game-changing product? "If I said a couple thousand shells," Gomez told a journalist, "it probably sounds like I'm exaggerating."
How is volume like this even possible? Process. A robust innovation process explains why companies like Apple, Pixar, and, yes, Taco Bell remain consistent even as very talented employees come and go. Meanwhile, other companies struggle to deliver wins regularly even as they invest in hiring and retaining top talent. Process makes the Idea Ratio not just possible but sustainable, and we'll go into detail on that in a bit.
Is there something magical about the number 2,000? Not necessarily. In some industries, it's even higher. According to our friend Wolfgang Ebel at the Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai, the number of candidate compounds at the top of the solution funnel is more like 10,000 to 20,000. According to the inventor and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson, it took 5,127 prototypes to create his namesake bagless vacuum cleaner. (We don't even want to think about how many ideas went into creating that many actual prototypes.) In other arenas, the right ratio of ideas to successful outcomes might be "only" 500- or 1,000-to-1.
What the right number isn't is two, 10, or 20. The secret to coming up with good ideas is coming up with many more ideas. With practice and experimentation, you'll arrive at an Idea Ratio that works best for your context. In the interim, begin by generating ideas for much longer than you usually do. As you test and validate those ideas, you will quickly learn that any idea is just a starting point, a spark. Some ideas that sound completely feasible fall flat in the real world. Others appear wildly impractical, even silly. Then you try them and discover that a few tweaks are enough to make them work.
It's worth repeating: For quantity to soar, you must relax expectations around quality. As you're learning from your Idea Quota, generating lots of ideas requires a no-judgment zone. You'll find that much of the value in any new idea lies in the additional ideas it sparks in others.
Why People Stop Too Soon
In our experience, the typical brainstorming session results in a handful of ideas at best. Once there are even a couple of feasible options on the table, the enthusiasm to continue quickly dwindles. Before you know it, the discussion has shifted to implementation.
Otherwise intelligent and successful leaders consider this paltry amount of ideation sufficient even in the case of ambitious, large-scale projects. In their view, spending an hour coming up with eight or nine possibilities is 60 minutes well-spent. One team at a major bank asked us, "Which of these six new ventures should we present to the board?" Six! Each of these ventures would involve months of effort by a large team and a seven-figure investment.
Related: How to Turn Your Idea Into Success
If the right starting number isn't six but the far side of 600, how do we bridge the gap between what people think they need and the scale of output that drives world-class results? For one thing, it would help to use all the time available. In our work at Stanford, we've found that even professional creatives tend to stop generating ideas before the allotted time. So how can you make the most of your brainstorm session? Here are a couple factors to keep an eye on.
Even if your problem isn't a true emergency requiring immediate resolution, every minute of the group's time constitutes a significant investment. If people aren't aware of the correlation between quantity and quality, persisting past the first good idea can be interpreted as perfectionism. Wasteful. People get annoyed when one contributor keeps throwing out new ideas when the majority is forming a consensus. If you value the opinion of your peers, you learn to zip your lip once a good-enough idea has been suggested. With a viable option on the table, the anxiety of not knowing is alleviated. Everyone relaxes. They may halfheartedly suggest additional possibilities, but as the meeting continues there's a clear tilt toward that early idea. Call it the urge to converge.
→ The Creative Cliff
Another cognitive bias at play here is the "creative cliff illusion," a phenomenon identified by psychology professors Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren. In their research, Lucas and Nordgren found that people in a brainstorm sense that their creativity is getting "used up" when they generate ideas. However, unlike other cognitive resources like patience and willpower that may get depleted over time, creativity remains stable or increases as you use it. Because of the creative cliff illusion, people don't persist in generating ideas for nearly as long as they could. In fact, they quit just as they're getting to their most interesting ideas. This isn't a talent thing. It's an expectations thing. Lucas and Nordgren found that people's beliefs about creativity — for example, whether they (incorrectly) believed that your best ideas arrive first — correlated with how long they persisted at creative tasks. In other words, understanding the creative cliff illusion helps dispel it. In the same way that a trainer helps you push through your perceived physical limitations, a creative process helps you push past the creative cliff.
→ Anchoring Bias
A third limiter on the flow of ideas is the anchoring bias, first proposed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two key progenitors of behavioral economics. When making decisions, people tend to latch on to an initial reference point, or anchor. For example, if you ask a group of people to estimate the size of an object, the remaining estimates will cluster around the first guess — even if that first guess is way off base. That initial number becomes a focal point, an event horizon that's cognitively difficult to escape for the other participants. The first few suggestions in a brainstorming session will inevitably steer what follows. Even experienced creators fall prey to anchoring, unconsciously positioning all their suggestions in relation to earlier suggestions instead of letting the development process diverge across the full spectrum of possibilities. That's why we need a process that systematically prevents anchors from forming in the first place.
→ The Einstellung Effect
Assuming you withstand the pressure long enough to push past the creative cliff and soar, anchors and all, you still have one last obstacle to overcome. Observed by psychologists for decades, the Einstellung effect occurs when one possible solution prevents you from seeing any others. Simply thinking of one direction to approach a problem can blind you to the full range of alternatives. If you've ever played a word-search game and found yourself noticing the words you've already spotted over and over, you're familiar with the power of this bias. Once your brain sees a path through the maze, it becomes very hard to consider alternate routes.
Merim Bilalić and Peter McLeod used eye-tracking cameras to demonstrate this in a novel study of chess players. Even as players insisted they were scanning the whole board for a solution to a chess problem, their eyes kept following the same pattern, one they'd been primed to see by solving a previous, similar problem. The previous approach to a solution didn't work for this new problem, but they couldn't break free of it.
The Einstellung effect explains why solo idea generation underperforms. To comb the full spectrum of possibilities, we need others to push us out of the ruts we don't even know we're in.
A Simple Method For Solving Complex Problems
If we're going to bring a group together to tackle a problem, we want to walk away with the greatest possible volume and variety of ideas in return for the investment of time and energy.
The output of a brainstorming session should reflect the full range of experiences, backgrounds, and thinking styles in the room. The following guidelines have proven effective with organizations of every size and across industries. For remote and hybrid work, you can now choose from among a robust array of online tools designed specifically for facilitating virtual sessions. This approach adapts surprisingly well to digital whiteboards and pixelated Post-its, and the best part is, you're never distracted by that one guy wandering around the conference room with a bag of chips instead of staying put at his table.
→ Assemble the right mix
Leaders often invite people to a brainstorming session indiscriminately: the more, the merrier. But if you're not careful, you can end up with the core team on one side and a group of outsiders unable to offer relevant contributions on the other. Resist the urge to CC the whole company the next time you need ideas. Small is good. Three people with insight into a problem are enough to reap the benefits of brainstorming. With more than six participating, you'll just end up at a long conference table with each person interacting with a handful of others in earshot. Everyone in the room should have enough relevant experience and expertise to offer grounded contributions. This doesn't mean that everyone must come from the same department, of course. Nor is this to say that novice viewpoints can't be helpful. To welcome a fresh perspective into the discussion, just do so deliberately and with a specific end in mind rather than sprinkling in a bunch of interns as an afterthought.
→ Gather initial suggestions
Expecting people to spitball in a group setting favors the extroverts. It also leaves everyone vulnerable to anchoring — the first few suggestions will steer every contribution that follows. Before bringing everyone together, give the participants a prompt related to the problem at hand and ask them to submit at least two contributions in advance. These initial suggestions will serve as seeds for idea generation, ensuring that the widest spectrum of possibilities gets explored. A good prompt will usually take the form of a "How might we?" question, like: "How might we help customers find products more easily on our mobile app?" Follow this up with a cue: "Leveraging your own unique experience and perspective, what new solutions might you recommend?" Below that, leave 10 or more blank spaces to encourage more than the minimum of two suggestions.
→ Get everyone in the right mindset with warm-ups
Spend the first 10 or 15 minutes warming up as a group. A good warm-up exercise sets the tone, implicitly establishing creative rules of engagement such as deferring judgment, going for quantity, keeping each contribution brief, and building on the ideas of others. In our experience, the best warm-up is doing the same thing you'll be doing during the session but with lower stakes. For example, if you're looking for ways to convince customers to switch from buying each new version of your app to paying for a monthly subscription, give the group a parallel challenge: "How might we convince Alan's kids to eat their vegetables?"
Have the participants build on each suggestion by saying "No," and then making an alternative suggestion. If someone says, "Maybe we could blend the vegetables into a smoothie?" others could respond, "No, that won't work. You have to roast them," or, "No, roasting takes too long. Smother them in salad dressing instead." Once the participants have done this for a minute or two, ask them to stop saying, "No," and instead start affirming and building on one another's ideas using the improviser's mantra, "Yes, and . . . ":
"Yes, and use a low-calorie, organic salad dressing for even more health benefits," or, "Yes, and you could even give them a choice of two different salad dressings so they feel more in charge."
And so on. At the end of the warm-up, ask everyone if they noticed the improvement after the switch from "no" to "yes, and."
→ Choose a facilitator
Choose a facilitator for the brainstorm session. Importantly, the facilitator is not a boss. This is true even if they are, in fact, the boss. The facilitator simply runs the session. The facilitator begins the session by distributing different color Sharpies and Post-it pads to each team member. The facilitator reviews the team's prompts and selects five or six seeds to spur idea generation. We want at least one idea from each member of the team. Beyond that, look for a balance between novelty and feasibility. Once the seeds have been written on the whiteboard, each at the top of a separate column, it's time to begin in earnest.
→ Set the pace
When the timer starts, the facilitator invites ideas inspired by the seed in the first column on the whiteboard. To contribute, a participant (a) writes their idea down, (b) says it out loud to the team, and (c) sticks it in the appropriate column. As the session progresses, the facilitator contributes their own ideas while cheering everyone else on — always in terms of quantity, not quality. It's not what we think of any particular idea that matters but what each idea helps us think of next. As the columns fill up, keep an eye out to make sure everyone is participating.
Generating ideas is like microwaving popcorn. At the start, a couple of straightforward ideas will "pop" in quick succession. This will be followed by steadier, and steadily more divergent, popping as the obvious directions are exhausted and the creative cliff is surpassed. Before the ideas stop popping altogether — typically, this takes five or six minutes — the facilitator directs the group's attention to the next column, both to keep the energy up and to get the group through all the columns in the given amount of time. With six columns and six minutes to a column, you'll have sufficient time for the warm-up at the start and the wrap-up at the end in a given hour.
→ Capture, marinate, and reassemble
At the end of a session, bring all the teams together and spend five minutes talking through the results and their implications. Be sure to snap photos of all the whiteboards. Above all, don't try to decide which ideas are most promising. Next, send the group out with a clear mission: "We'd like you to continue to reflect on the prompt, as well as the solutions we've imagined together," you explain. "Some of your freshest thinking will happen after this meeting is over. When we reconvene to make decisions about how to move forward, everyone can share the insights and ideas that arrived in the interim."
Before dispersing, tally the total number of ideas generated. Knowing that the group produced, for example, a few hundred ideas over the course of 60 minutes can be incredibly motivating for everyone who participated. Over time, you will develop a sense of the right Idea Ratio for the kind of work you're doing. That ratio becomes a target to hit every time.
With this simple and systematic method, one hour will accomplish more than you ever thought possible. You won't get to 2,000 ideas, but you will generate dozens or even hundreds to start with. Our friend Dan Klein, head of the Stanford Improvisers, offers a final piece of advice: Don't try to be creative. Dare to be obvious instead. What feels "obvious" to one person will strike others as novel, even inspiring. Nothing ever "goes without saying." This is the core advantage of working in a group. It's a process of steel sharpening steel. It's why we don't simply retreat to our desks to generate ideas alone. In a group, no single person bears the burden of being the creative hero. We can all relax and let loose, striking sparks off one another as we coast forward.
→ This article is excerpted from the book IDEAFLOW: The Only Business Metric That Matters by Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2022 by Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn