At your last brainstorm, did you notice that 90% of the ideas were completely useless, but 10% were worthy of more discussion? If so, you’re seeing the intractable rule of creativity in operation. It’s called Sturgeon’s Law, or what I simply call the 90-10 Rule.
I noticed this odd effect from the moment I started working as a creative director. Every brainstorm had a slew of nasty ideas, but amongst them, there were some golden nuggets of brilliance. It didn’t matter what I did, the percentage never changed.
When I pointed it out to clients, the most memorable retort was from a client who told me I needed to facilitate brainstorms better, because all of the good ideas should come at the beginning of the workshop, not all scrambled together. Two words: As if.
First, that’s not how the brain operates. The human brain literally or metaphorically cannot organise itself. It can think about what it thinks, but it doesn’t really have a good perspective of what it’s thinking – like an idea – until it gets that notion out of its head. Once external, the brain can compare and contrast the idea to something to understand if it’s good or not.
That’s why it is essential good brainstorms must have a huge volume of bad ideas. 90% of your ideas will be bad, wrong, improbable, immoral, criminal, inane, ho-hum, been-there-done-that and senseless, and 10% of ideas will be moving, impactful, hilarious, engaging, memorable, etc. Once you have a mass of ideas – both good and bad – you will absolutely see because the volume of both kinds exponentially increases the 10% of good ideas. Or, as the cliché goes, Rising tides lift all boats.
* Don’t include bad brainstorms in this definition. There’s too many other issues to deal with in bad brainstorms – a bad agenda, lifeless participants, vague objectives, annoying environment – which need to be dealt with before the 90-10 rule begins to work. Also, there’s a lot of value in bad ideas.
So, in your next brainstorm, here’s some ways to use the 90-10 Rule.
- Brainstorms rarely create lost of volume in one sitting. Instead, have multiple and shorter brainstorms.
- Write ideas on flip-charts so everyone can see them. Someone might see a bad idea and improve it, or you can encourage others to return to previous ideas and improve them..
- People brainstorm better at different times of day. That’s why multiple brainstorms are good. You can have the “morning people” go to a.m. brainstorms, and “afternoon people” to go p.m. brainstorms.
- Use less people in brainstorms. Two or three people is fine. With less people, you can schedule more brainstorms.
- Keep the focus tight. And, use the best solutions from the last brainstorm to spur the next one. That way, if you have to return to specific people, the brainstorm always seems “fresh.”
- Stand up! The brain works more efficiently when the body is active.
How else have you helped improve your brainstorms by encouraging more ideas than less?