A fast and popular brainstorm technique, word stimulus is a simple variation of free association.
If you’re not sure what it is, free association is a mental game where a stimulus – like a word or a photograph – spontaneously suggests another word, usually without any logical connection between the first and second.
For example, if I say DOG, you might think CAT. Someone else might think STAR (as in ‘dog star’ aka Sirius).
The list of new words often helps you look at the original topic in a new way or perspective – also known as reframing.
This technique is simple to do in any type of brainstorm.
- Write out your problem.
- Create a short list of obvious words associated with the problem.
- For each word, write down 10-15 words which you associate with the original word.
- Pick any individual wordand bend it back to the original problem to see if a different perspective might suggest a new idea or solution. I prefer words which are truly strange or provocative because I want to stretch my imagination in new ways.
As an example, a client of mine (a global retailer) wanted to re-think how they monitored the external business environment for potential issues or crises. I suggested we use a list of occupations. How would a different occupation monitor for potential issues? We created a list of occupations. One of them captured our imagination. How would a farmer monitor for problems? The client said: weather vane.
To make a long story short, we created the NEWS Vane as an internal program for local retailers to be aware of possible problem areas and alert us in advance.
- N stood for potential issues in local News
- E stood for potential issues store Employees
- W stood for potential issues with Work conditions
- S stood for potential issues with Shoppers (or customers)
Naturally we used the weather vane as a visual icon.
As you use this technique, here’s some extra tips.
- Think quickly
- Don’t judge what you (or others) think
- Keep moving If a word doesn’t stimulate anything, try another. I prefer to get rid of the previous one when I jump to the next, but other people like to make a visual collage of all words.
- Push yourself Personally, I try doing it for 15-20 minutes
- Go for the less obvious If you want to look at your original problem completely differently, you want words are totally disassociated with the current issue.
- Write down everything Something might not click immediately, but it might later if you return after a break
If helpful, I have a suggested list of words – nouns, verbs, occupations and famous people – which you can download this document: Brainstorm Technique Word Stimulus.
Anything to add? How have you used Word Stimulus or Free Association in your brainstorms?