Stop brainstorming… use the 6-3-5 method instead

What’s the best way to generate new ideas? Hopefully it won’t surprise you to know that it isn’t brainstorming, as we touched on that in an earlier episode. Having lots of people shouting out ideas over the top of each other may seem exciting, but brainstorming doesn’t generate the greatest number of useful ideas. In this episode we’re going to introduce you to a better way of generating ideas—the 6-3-5 method.

A study by Brian Mullen and his colleagues explored what they called ‘productivity loss from brainstorming’. This showed that people working together using the traditional rules of brainstorming actually came up with fewer ideas, and importantly, fewer useful ideas, than the same number of people with the same expertise working alone.
To understand why, we need to step back and realise that ideation, the process of generating useful ideas, has two parts: a divergent phase and a convergent phase. In the divergent phase we want to generate as many different ideas as possible that might help us solve a particular problem. Then, in the convergent phase, we narrow down the number of ideas to develop a small set of useful ideas to explore.

When we generate ideas on our own, we each tend to diverge in our own way, using our traditional patterns of thinking, happily following our own train of thought. However when we work as part of a group, we tend to converge because as each person adds a new idea, it focuses us back on the problem, restricting our lateral thoughts. Consequently, groups tend to develop a smaller number of potential solutions, and miss out on exploring the wider array of options.

A better approach is to use the 6-3-5 method, developed by Bernd Rohrbach back in 1968. It was one of the idea generation techniques that was investigated by Jami Shah in 1998. The idea is that you start with a clear problem statement and involve six people to each silently write down three ideas on a worksheet within five minutes, hence the 6-3-5 name. They then pass the sheet to the person on their right, who then reads the other ideas and uses them to inspire three more of their own ideas. This is done for six rounds, resulting in 108 ideas generated in the 30 minutes. We then remove any duplicates, refine the remaining ideas and then develop the worthwhile ones.
For this method to work well, we need to be crystal clear about the problem statement. The clearer and more specific this can be, the more effective the process will be. Part of this is being super clear about the intended target audience and any constraints, such as budget or time. The six people we select should be knowledgeable about the problem and the target audience.

The worksheet we use has the problem statement at the top and then a simple table with three columns across the top for the three ideas, and then six rows underneath, allowing each of the participants to write their ideas. You can see an example template here.

A moderator helps facilitate the process and keeps everyone on time. Once all the ideas have been gathered, the sheets can be copied and distributed to all the participants. They then discuss the ideas, sharing what they liked and didn’t like. As a result they settle on a small number of the ideas to pursue. If necessary, further decision making techniques could be employed, such as placing potential ideas on an impact/effort grid to determine which ones will bring the greatest impact with the least effort.

What we like about this method is that it allows people to work alone first, thinking independently about the problem. That helps maximise divergent thinking. It allows people to build on each other’s ideas in a constructive way. The final ideas are unlikely to look anything like the original ones, and best of all, everyone feels part of the process and has ownership of the final result. 

If you’re after a way to generate lots of good ideas, we suggest you try this method and then let us know how it went. Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences, including any tips and further ideas. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!

Thanks folks for joining us on this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they can join the conversation!

Resources

Mullen, B., Johnson, C., & Salas, E. (1991). Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 12(1), 3-23. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp1201_1

Rohrbach, B. (1969). Kreativ nach Regeln – Methode 635, eine neue Technik zum Lösen von Problemen (Creative by rules – Method 635, a new technique for solving problems). Absatzwirtschaft, 12, 73-75.

Shah, J. J. (1998). Experimental Investigation of Progressive Idea Generation Techniques in Engineering Design. Paper presented at the ASME 1998 Design Engineering Technical Conferences. Available online.brainstorming

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Graham Harris
Graham Harris
6 days ago

Great idea here – as you stress it is really important to be clear about the problem at hand. Sometimes that can be difficult to tease out but really important to do.