Brainstorm Technique #12: Inside The Box

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Brainstorm Technique: Alphabrainstorming

Outside the box is a vast and intimidating place. With so many possibilities and a blank piece of paper, it can be hard to know where to start. For consumers, it’s called the Paradox of Choice. It’s no different for brainstormers. At times like these, the best place to start is inside the box. Explore every corner and crevice of the box, and once the ideas start flowing then you can break down the walls and mentally frolic outside the box.

Ideal Activity For:
creativity exercises, problem solving, concept development

Brainstorm Tools:
2-3 easel pads
permanent markers
small to medium sized meeting space
list of limitations – written on individual pieces of paper

# of Participants:
How To Brainstorm Inside The Box:

  1. Review the Brainstorm Bill of Rights
  2. Review the Brainstorm Prep Checklist and answer the appropriate questions
  3. Gather supplies and book a small to medium sized conference room
  4. Assemble a list of the limitations of the project (e.g. deadline, budget, manpower, etc. the more complete the list the better)

Brainstorm Intro: (approx. time varies by experience level)

  1. Review Brainstorm Bill of Rights with participants
  2. Establish the goal of the brainstorm by discussing the BrainBrief™
  3. Kick-off the meeting with an Icebreaker (if needed)

Brainstorm Part 1: (approx. 10-20 minutes)

  1. After quickly recapping the goal of the brainstorm session, randomly assign a limitation to each individual or group.
  2. Instruct your participants to think about how they would solve the problem if this limitation was the ONLY obstacle they faced. No other problems exist.
  3. Have teams write their ideas on easel pads labeled at the top with their limitation.
  4. If time allows (or for longer brainstorms), invite groups to select an additional obstacle when time expires.

Brainstorm Part 2: (approx. 10-20 minutes)

  1. Organize all the solutions the group has brainstormed by limitation and line the walls of your conference room or meeting space.
  2. Working as a large group, review the ideas and look for solutions that naturally compliment each other. You may also use the Forced Connections approach to combine solutions.
  3. Record linked ideas on an easel pad or mark with a shared symbol (star, plus sign, etc.) to indicate the relationship between the ideas.

Brainstorm Part 3: (approx. 20 minutes)

  1. Using the solutions selected in Round 2, challenge the group to further refine the ideas to satisfy additional limitations.
  2. Start with one of the selected solutions. Introduce limitations one at a time and identify changes that need to be made to overcome the new obstacle.
  3. Follow the same process for all selected concepts.


  1. Thank all the participants for their input
  2. Select concepts for further development  (can be done alone or as part of the group)
  3. Be sure to capture all the notes and take them with you. It makes big ideas infinitely more portable and permanent.


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5 things The Godfather trilogy taught me about brainstorming

A movie like The Godfather needs no introduction. The little film about Don Corleone and his merry band of mobsters has become one of the most celebrated movies of the last 100 years. (Of course, one recent poll showed it’s also the movie most people lie about having seen.) So between the shootouts, the double crosses and the fish wrapped in a bulletproof vest, what could The Godfather possibly have to do with brainstorming? Plenty.

Lesson #1 – Be prepared.
“Hey, listen, I want somebody good – and I mean very good – to plant that gun. I don’t want my brother coming out of that toilet with just his dick in his hands, alright?” ~ Santino “Sonny” Corleone

Just like Michael coming out of the bathroom, you may only get one shot at your brainstorm. Preparation is key, so don’t wing it. Take the time to put together a plan. Carefully choose the attendees. Identify one goal you want to achieve and establish a brainstorm plan that will get you there. Finally, brief the participants in advance and give them enough time to prepare. Still not sure how to prepare? No problem. Follow this simple checklist and you’ll be ready to roll.

Lesson #2 – Don’t say “No” to everything.
“No Sicilian can ever refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day.” ~ Tom Hagen

For some people, this is the hardest part of a brainstorm. But in order for your brainstorm to succeed, you need to turn off your internal monitor. Do you think it was easy for Don Corleone to sit in his study at this daughter’s wedding and agree to every random request someone made? Of course not, but he did it. You can too… even for just one hour. If you can’t, you’re going to derail the entire process. It’s impossible to know where an idea might come from, so don’t stifle the creative process just as it gets going.
Lesson # 3 – Don’t talk when you should listen.
“I have a sentimental weakness for my children and I spoil them, as you can see. They talk when they should listen.” ~ Don Vito Corleone

Ask yourself one question, “Did I invite all these people here so they could listen to me and tell me how smart I am OR did I invite them here because they’re smart and I want to hear what they think?” Don’t dominate the meeting. If you followed Lesson #1, you spent time handpicking your brainstorm attendees, so let them participate. You might need to get the group started, but once they’re rolling back off a bit. Speak up with good ideas, builds or to redirect the group’s energy, but remember that this is a team exercise NOT a lecture.

Lesson #4 – Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
“There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” ~ Michael Corleone

As John P. Kotter says in his book Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, it is natural to want to shield the creative process from our harshest critics. If we can prevent them from seeing the idea before it’s finished, we can keep them from killing it prematurely. Not so. By including our biggest critics in the brainstorm process, you can accomplish two things. First, you can identify and address their objection before it has a chance to gain any momentum*. Second, you can help them feel ownership of the idea they helped create. Once they have a vested interest in the idea, they may turn from a critic into a supporter.
*This tip is based upon an assumption that your critic can abide by Lesson #2. If they can’t silence their inner censor, then look for another way to satisfy their concerns.

Lesson #5 – It’s not personal, it’s business.
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” ~ Michael Corleone

Finally, there will come a time when the brainstorm is over and you’re faced with a list of good ideas. Unfortunately, not every idea can move onto the next stage, so some difficult decisions have to be made. Each brainstorm participant will have their own list of favorites (possibly weighted to support their ideas). It might be easy to support ideas from your boss or other strong personalities in the room, but you need to make a business decision. Go back to the goals you outlined at the start of the meeting. Measure each idea against those goals and pick the ideas that meet or exceed those standards.

In conclusion, remember one thing and you’ll be fine, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”


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