Brainstorming has gotten a bad name, at least in its most commonly practiced form: A group of people with a cold start on a problem shout ideas at a whiteboard until the session recorder's writing hand cramps up or everyone's eyes glaze over.

But brainstorming is not the only way to shake loose creative ideas from your team's collective mind. (And the above scenario is not even the best way to brainstorm; most people do better with a more structured approach.)

At my firm, we use a mix of creative strategies—partly to be sure we're looking at a problem from all the angles, and partly so we don't bore ourselves into dull-wittedness. I've outlined five of our favorite exercises in this article.

When we're working on brand story and messaging projects, we use these approaches to uncover core brand elements, reframe concepts for stronger audience appeal, and generate fresh approaches. But these exercises can work with all kinds of communications and business problems.

1. The Take Away

Coco Chanel purportedly advised women to take off at least one piece of jewelry before leaving the house. It's good advice—not just for dressing but also for communicating with power and clarity.

The Take Away is a process of stripping down. We use it to counter the impulse to lay it on heavy, to say everything at once, or to attach distracting baubles to designs or plans.

Say you're developing messaging for a new product, and you have a list of 12 key benefits. Truthfully, they can't all be essential, and you need much more focus to make messages memorable. So, take away a benefit and consider the result: Are you gaining in focus what you lost in comprehensiveness? Keep taking away, stripping away detail until you get to a benefits description that's as simple as it can be while still conveying something meaningful to your audience.

Steve Jobs demanded a process like this in developing Apple products, and that seems to have worked out well.

2. Word Trees

Word Trees are the opposite of Take Away. They're handy when you need to find a way to uncover brand attributes or describe something that's distinctive and has emotional resonance. We use them most often for naming, to tease out unexpected yet resonant terms, word combinations, and associations.

Start a Word Tree by listing words or terms related to a broad concept. Then, for each word, start a new list of related words. Keep branching out as you go, and continue for several generations. Say you start with "energy." Your list of related words might include "spark," "power," and "drink." You would then create a new related-word list for each of those words.

This process generates fruitful new paths for exploration and shows you which paths are creative dead-ends.

3. Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies is a series of written prompts created by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt as a way of breaking through creative blocks.

You can use the app, the website, or the original deck of cards to give your team random prompts. They range from relatively straightforward instructions ("work at a different speed") to more off-the-wall ideas ("give way to your worst impulse") and thoroughly enigmatic single-word suggestions ("water").

Consider the prompts in light of your process or problem, and use them to guide a new approach. For example, if we were developing messaging for a cleantech company, we might respond to "water" conceptually, by considering how the company's technology flows; or we might respond literally, by listing the ways it affects water use.

Used in the right spirit, Oblique Strategies can be a fun—and challenging—way to force team thinking off its usual tracks. You can hear it in action in episode 736 of the NPR podcast Planet Money: The team used Oblique Strategies to find a fresh way to talk about the Nobel Prize for economics.

4. The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys exercise is a way of getting to the root of a problem and—hopefully—finding a clever solution. (We picked it up from Andrew Razeghi's The Riddle: Where Ideas Come From and How to Have Better Ones.)

First, turn your problem into a "why" question—say, "Why doesn't our story resonate with this market?" List your answers. Pick one—say, "We're not talking about the right things"—and ask "why?" Maybe the answer is, "They don't care about what we think they should care about." Then ask "why?" about that answer, and continue until you get to the fifth "why."

At that point, you should have reached a realization or inspiration.

5. Blue Sky

The previous exercises involve constraints in some way. The Blue Sky exercise is the opposite: It involves envisioning what you would do or create if there were no limits (time, talent, money, laws of physics), and then working out what would have to be true for you to achieve that. Can you make some of those things true? Are there interim goals you can plot a course toward? Can you break the Blue Sky project down into steps? What can you do right now?

If Blue Sky exercises get you going, you might also check out processes from design firms:

  • See Motivate Design's presentation on its business design tool "What If."
  • And see the Be Bold and Let Go categories in Future Partners' free resources area. (The company has built a small empire around its Think Wrong book on creative problem solving; it's also worth checking out.)

* * *

Whatever exercises you use, keep in mind that the result of any creative problem-solving session is just the beginning: an idea. Your ability to execute on the idea will determine whether it's generic or genius.

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image of Sandra Stewart

Sandra Stewart is a principal at Thinkshift Communications, which provides content marketing, messaging, and other strategic marketing services to cleantech and sustainable businesses.

LinkedIn: Sandra Stewart