The Single Best Thing I’ve Ever Heard About Ideation and Brainstorming

Cate McGehee

The best and most useful thing I've ever learned about ideation and brainstorming - Portent

Something my grad school professor said changed the way I’ve thought about brainstorming forever. Now it’s the best thing I can tell anyone else.

There are dozens of ways you can get a room going and pan the gold from a group’s brainstorm. There are hundreds of blog posts out there that list techniques for generating and vetting ideas. This isn’t one of them.

Instead, this post is about one idea. It’s not an exercise, but a framework. And it combines two of my favorite things (metaphors and graphs) for one unforgettable notion that has framed the way I approach ideating ever since. And it might change your process, too, maybe more than any of those listicles can.

Ideation and Brainstorming: An Illustrative Story

Once, in a graduate class in the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering program, the professor asked the class what we could do with a piece of string and a coin with a hole in the middle. He threw an image up on the projector:

Coin and String Exercise - Brainstorming Warmup

“So, what can you do with this coin and a piece of string?”

Silence. No one really knew what he meant. No one wanted to ask and look silly.

“I’m serious, what can you do with these?”

One student raised his hand.

“Make a necklace,” he ventured.

“Excellent. What else?”

Another student: “You could use it to level a table.”

“Excellent. What else?”

There was a pause, and the professor suggested, “Maybe you could use it to make a tiny swing for a mouse.”

The class was emboldened. People started suggesting more ideas, nervous at first but then with gusto. Some ideas were good. Some were lame and poorly wrought. Others, ridiculous but somehow clever.

“Cat toy.”


“You could use it to hypnotize someone”

“Fish a magnet out of the gutter.”

“Create a scale that can only measure whether or not an object weighs more or less than the coin.”

“Make a lasso.”

“Or a noose.”

After a while, the suggestions died down. The students searched their minds for more to contribute, but the room fell silent.

“Nothing else?” the professor asked. No one spoke.

“What we just did was an exercise I use to illustrate how brainstorming works,” he said. “Most people think they know how it works, because it’s a term we’ve used since we were children, but I don’t think most people realize that brainstorming follows a bell curve.”

He drew a basic bell curve on the whiteboard and labeled its axes:

The brainstorming bell curve - Ideas over Time

“Almost any ideation session follows this pattern,” he continued. “The x-axis is how long you spend ideating. The y-axis is how many ideas you come up with.

“At first, people are quiet,” he continued. “They’re afraid to get the answer wrong or look dumb. The first idea always takes the longest to be said—you can see how gentle the slope is at the beginning of the curve. But once someone says the first idea, others follow, and in increasingly rapid succession.”

He annotated his bell curve:

The brainstorming bell curve - Portent

“After this period of ramping up, people begin a kind of frenzy. This is when the most ideas are generated, and it is the result of people finally feeling comfortable to truly say anything.”

“Do you remember what happened in our brainstorm just now, about the coin and the piece of string? Do you remember when I suggested the swing for the mouse? It wasn’t the best idea. It wasn’t even a very good idea, and the ideas you came up with beforehand were probably better. But I knew if I threw something absurd out there, you all would feel more comfortable getting a little absurd yourselves.

“It’s not the best idea that encourages the room to speak, it’s the silliest, the craziest, the most impossible or even the dumbest. That’s why we say there are no bad ideas. Because once you have your first ‘bad’ idea, you enter the peak of the brainstorm.”

He added again to the whiteboard:

The brainstorming bell curve - hitting peak ideation - Portent

“So what happens next?” the professor continued.

“The ideas slow down. Just as it gets progressively easier to think of ideas in the beginning, it gets progressively harder to think of more after you’ve reached the peak. Nothing lasts forever, including brainstorms. If you try to keep forcing new ideation after the brainstorm has run its course, you’ll reap diminishing returns.”

He drew a final note on the whiteboard:

The brainstorming bell curve - Seeing ideation all the way through - Portent

And then he dropped the metaphor:

“There’s a reason people call it ‘popcorn-style’ when a group of folks shout out ideas willy nilly. When you microwave a bag of popcorn, you have to wait in silence for the first few kernels to explode, and then the whole bag erupts. In the end, the pops become fewer and fewer, and you have to remove it from the microwave before you ruin the batch.”

I’d never heard that before, and I haven’t forgotten it since. Now, the most important thing I know about ideation is that you need to keep going until it’s really over. Too many people stop ideating before the brainstorm is actually complete and they miss the peak of it entirely. The brainstorm isn’t over when you have one good idea, it’s over when you can’t think of any more ideas at all.

If you’re coming up with ideas in a marketing meeting, the same principle applies. Don’t stop ideating after the first few ideas, and keep pushing until ideas come rapidly. And don’t stop until you’re really done.

And finally, if you’re trying to facilitate a brainstorm, you might have to swallow your pride and suggest something as absurd as a mouse on a swing.

If you want more than just a story and a single piece of advice, however, I recommend Portent’s newest ebook, Plug and Play Content Strategy. Author Augustin Kendall offers many exercises for ideation, vetting, and prioritization that will take you a lot farther than the end of your bell curve:

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  1. Amazing Content, I like the story of that is showing best example of brainstorming with the curve, especially peak of the brain storm curve.
    Good Content, Keep it UP, Cate!

  2. Frankly, it depends. It depends on at least few factors that could be called “usual”. I’ve had conducted many brainstormings and my experience is that:
    – Don’t bring the attendants “ad hoc” to the table, in most cases the don’t know what to say, or there will be just one person with ideas in the group, it is better to inform them even 20-30 minutes before the brainstorm, that there is gonna be a discussion. More people will attend in a way you seek, and their ideas will be even sharper.
    – Don’t let your group have a leader in your discussion. If the group of people see that 80-90% of ideas comes from just one of them, they’ve got no motivation to think. There is also a second reason to “force” answers while talking with everyone. If your group will see there is a leader out there, next time they gonna push him to the front on the very start, thinking that this time he or she “will do the job” again.
    – Every idea, even the funniest one, is valuable. Sometimes the stupid names or fantasy ideas may actually come true and your client may be as happy as never before. If your idea is something what had never been done before, you should bring it out of your minds to the table and prepare it to be alive.

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