Unbounded brainstorming isn’t the most productive path to creativity. Constraints can make designs interesting.
[…] In our quest for breakthrough ideas, we didn’t ask you to think outside the box. Nor did we ask you to think more intently inside your usual box. We gave you a new box and asked you to think inside that.
Most managers and professionals are quite capable of thinking effectively inside a box. They live with constraints all the time and automatically explore alternatives, combinations, and permutations within their confined space. We have found that if you systematically constrain the scope of their thinking (but not too much), people are adept at fully exploring the possibilities, and they can regularly generate lots of good ideas—and occasionally some great ones. Setting the right constraints is a matter of asking the right kinds of questions: ones that create boxes that are useful, but different, from the boxes your people currently think in.
Ten years ago, as part of a larger project for McKinsey’s strategy practice, we led a team of consultants who developed such an approach to brainstorming. It involves posing concrete questions and orchestrating the process for answering those questions. Since then we have successfully used this method with more than 150 clients engaged in everything from major product innovations and industry-shaping moves to simple process improvements. Our technique helped a consumer goods company identify an opportunity for a chilled beverage that captured 20% of the market in the first six months after its launch. A print media company used it to come up with ways to triple the firm’s penetration of the Hispanic market. A plastic pipe manufacturer uncovered an immediately exploitable opportunity to reduce costs by 75%. A regional bank came up with a process that more than doubled the sales productivity of the branches involved in the pilot. Even those whose job it is to be creative have benefited from the methodology: The editors of a group of prominent magazines who had been stuck in a rut in their efforts to come up with story angles have begun using the approach to develop fresh new articles for every issue.
Now that it has been road tested, we’d like to share our approach. A good place to begin is to examine what’s wrong with conventional approaches to brainstorming.