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Productive Brainstorming Starts with the Right Question

Productive Brainstorming Starts with the Right Question | HRDQ-U Blog

Written by: Dr. Judith Cardenas

Looking for new ways of improvement often begins with a group of individuals thrown together to think about updating an old process or fixing something that is no longer working. Popular questions for such brainstorming and creative meetings are usually worded like “Can we do something to upgrade…?” or “What should we do to make things work faster?”


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Words like “can” or “should do” are in the field of commands that limit creative responses; when the brain hears a command, it shuts down. One of the first reactions to command is a stress signal that alerts the prefrontal cortex to a coming possible challenge, that often translates into a fear that something is wrong and a pending judgment is near. There is an interesting article on stress shutting down neural circuits in response to even mild stress: – HHS Public Access, Scientific America, April 2012.

This article explains that “… stress sets off a series of chemical events that weaken the prefrontal cortex while strengthening the dominance of older parts of the brain; … (the prefrontal cortex) transfers high-level control over thought and emotion … to the hypothalamus … and other earlier evolved structures (like the amygdala). Quite simply, we lose it.”

Warren Berger suggests in his HBR article on innovation, “The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use” (Sept. 17, 2012), that we ask more gently, “How might we…?” Instead of presenting a challenge that could be fearful and stressful; this question invites open thought and creative response. Berger cites Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, using this simple question in “Everything From Designing New Products to Envisioning New Ways to Deliver Healthcare.” Berger quoted Brown as explaining, “’Might’ means we can put ideas out there that might work or might not – either way, it’s OK.”

Innovation and creativity happen in a relaxed, carefree environment where the mind has a curious, exciting, brain that wants to jump into the fresh surroundings of unlimited possibility. It all starts with the invitation to play.

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