5 ways to generate genius (because brainstorming sucks)


The always brilliant Seth Godin made my day recently by going public with the fact that brainstorming doesn’t work. I know, I know. Other important people have outed brainstorming. The New Yorker. Fast Company. CBS. But I think it’s been proven that an idea doesn’t exist until Seth proclaims it so.

Anyway, I was thrilled to read his post because I’ve always hated brainstorming. Maybe it’s because I think best staring out the windows, my fingers hovering over my keyboard. Or maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Whatever the reason, the quickest way to get me to seize up like a busted engine is to email me and say, “Hey! Let’s hop on a call and do some brainstorming about the [insert latest cool thing I get to work on] campaign!”

All of the ideas that flow just fine while I’m working, hiking, bathing, and procrastinating skedaddle when I’ve got my phone cradled on my shoulder and four people straining to hear each other on a free conference line.

So though I’m happy to hear that I’m not alone in this syndrome, the question becomes: what’s the best way to create something genius-y?

With a caveat that the only research I have to back these up is the testing done here at Story House labs, here are some ideas. Your mileage may vary.

1. Ask yourself: what’s really going on here?

Let’s say you’ve been charged with launching a fantastic new product–awesome! Instead of rushing out and going full bore on the tactics—Facebook campaign, check! Blogger outreach, check!—stop and think: what is it that I’m really trying to do here? Get people to buy my product (yes of course, but really, no). Or solve somebody’s problem (ding!). 

Another always brilliant soul, Clayton Christensen, uses this language to get at the same thing: “What’s the job to be done [by this new product]?” To quote him directly: “The jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: Why did she do it that way?” 

So does your customer really need another new pair of black sandals? Probably not. But does she want to look really hot and not have to walk with a fake smile plastered on her face because her toes are killing her? Ah, now that’s what’s really going on here. And that’s what’s going to get you to genius.

2. Ask somebody else what’s really going on here

Preferably someone completely unfamiliar with your business or your product, but someone who might use your business or product. Warning: this is not market research!  This is genius idea research. Ask her, “Hey, what job do dressy sandals need to do for you?” If she looks at you like you’re crazy, say, “Okay, what’s the biggest problem you have with dressy sandals?” 

3. Get out of the office already

No matter how packed with creative mojo your office is, it can be really hard to come up with fresh ideas if you spend day after day cooped up in there. Here’s your assignment: get out of there. Grab your notebook and go find a bench somewhere. Sit down. Look up. Watch the world go by. Focus on details. Or even better, find a gallery or museum to wander around for a bit. A bookstore will do in a pinch (maybe a title will spark something?).

4. Take a nap

There have been lots of recent studies that show that a good nap can spark some genius ideas. Get out your iPhone and set the alarm for a max of 30 minutes; sleep much longer and you’ll go into a deeper sleep (and feel groggier getting up). Make sure when you’re done, you head right back into the project that needs the most creative juice.

5. Let it be

Sometimes coming up with a good idea is a lot like chasing down a naughty puppy. The harder you try to grab him, the more elusive he gets. Then as soon as you give up and go sit down in the grass and ignoring him, he’ll come running to you, tail wagging. If you’re trying to wrangle an idea and you keep hitting a brick wall, one idea is to just stop. Leave it alone. Work on something else for a few hours that’s not creative at all (I find sending out invoices is always a nice diversion). If you can leave it for a whole day, even better. 

Would love to hear what works in your studio. Tell us in the comments!