Brainstorming the Question

This is part 4 in my series on brainstorming techniques.

So far we have covered good old fashioned brainstorming, in which everyone takes turns and we hope for the best in terms of group dynamics and the volume of ideas generated. Then we moved on to look at brainwriting and other techniques in which individuals write out their ideas before sharing with the group. Yesterday we looked at some really cool ways to manage multi-group dynamics and idea sharing as the brainstorm divides into smaller groups and moves about getting creative. But what about idea quality? How do we really know that the end result will have generated ideas of any interest whatsoever? And have we asked the right questions in the first place?

The following techniques turn away from brainstorming the answers, and focus instead on brainstorming the questions.


In this description of starbursting by MindTools, starbursting is used to generate questions which would then be used to evaluate an idea (in this case a suggested product). The tool could just as easily be used to brainstorm a list of questions to ask when exploring a brainstorming topic. Confused? Here’s an example:

In this example I’ve created a few questions around the original topic “how would we use vertical gardens in cities?”, and come up with a number of specific areas of interest. My next step would be to have the group choose 3 or 4 specific questions to explore, and then use a group brainstorming approach like rotating flipboards to generate ideas across each area of investigation.

The TERMS Star

Rob Dew and David Robinson proposed the TERMS acronym (Time, Emotion, Risk, Money and Situation) for evaluating customer perceptions of value.  Their original intention was to use TERMS as a method for identifying key decision factors on a Value Innovation curve, which you might then go on to use as the basis for creating a disruptive business strategy. I’ll write about TERMS in more detail later, but for now here it is applied to brainstorming.

As with the starburst, each point on the star is used to direct a line of questioning on the brainstorming topic before participants select the ones they want to brainstorm on. THe questions are quite broad, and force you to consider alternative perspectives more readily. For instance, with Risk we might consider the reasons why a business might not want a vertical garden or what sort of insurance might be useful in mitigating this risk. Again, I’ll come back to a more thorough discussion of TERMS later.

You might be interested to note that I’ve continued with the vertical gardens theme because I like the idea.  You can read more about it here.

Wonder Wall

I stumbled across this technique here, and guess it comes form the Tool Time folk over at Langford International. To focus on a brainstorming question or challenge, here’s what to do:

  • The facilitator introduces the brainstorm topic, and a number of wall charts.
  • There are three large charts; Questions, Issues and Comments
  • Participants write out one idea per post it, and stick them on the charts
  • At the end of the session the group would discuss all questions, issues and comments before refining and agreeing on a very clear problem statement to be used in an answers focused brainstorm.

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