Better than brainstorming – the new key to unlocking innovation
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > Better than brainstorming – the new key to unlocking innovation in your teams

Better than brainstorming – the new key to unlocking innovation in your teams

by Freya Lucas

July 20, 2023

For choice scientist Professor Sheena Iyengar, brainstorming a group creativity technique which helps teams to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by team members is overrated and “a bias-making exercise”. 


Instead, to remain relevant, to challenge established norms, or to disrupt established sectors such as early childhood education and care (ECEC), she recommends a six-step process she calls “choice mapping”: 


  1. Choose the problem
  2. Break it down 
  3. Compare wants 
  4. Search in and out of the box
  5. Create a choice map 
  6. Do the ‘third eye’ test.


In essence, her theory was inspired by a quote from French mathematician Henri Poincaré, who said, “Invention consists in avoiding the constructing of useless contraptions and in constructing the useful combinations which are in infinite minority.”


“The real power of choice doesn’t come from merely the exercise of picking and finding,” she said. “The real power of choice comes from your ability to pair the exercise of picking and finding with the exercise of imagination. If you put those together, that’s what leads to the construction of the most meaningful combinations.”


An extract of the Professor’s ideas, based on a piece which originally appeared in Fast Company appears below. Access the full version here.

The Sector has completed a choice mapping exercise based on a common issue in the ECEC sector: parents not engaging with documentation, instead asking for more photos of “just their child”. 


Choose the problem


Using the example above, the problem can be branched out into many directions: 


  • Educators spend a lot of time and effort creating documentation which links back to the approved learning frameworks, meets regulatory requirements, and demonstrates a cycle of planning, but parents don’t value this. 


  • Parents don’t feel that their child is seen as an individual learner, and is just ‘part of the crowd’.


  • Educators don’t feel valued as professionals, and believe the lack of engagement with documentation shows that parents see them as “babysitters”. 


There may be multiple other interpretations of “the problem” but as the dot points above show, it is important to refine the issue down from a broad perspective and make it as specific as possible. 


Break it down 


In the next stage, Professor Iyengar recommends breaking the problem down into sub problems (no more than five). Subproblems are ‘puzzle pieces’ and if you can solve these, she believes, you can solve the puzzle as a whole. 


Using the example above, some puzzle pieces might be: 


  • Finding a way to make parents feel like their child is an individual 
  • Finding new ways to document that engage parents AND meet the regulations 
  • Using more family friendly ways of communicating.


Compare wants


In this phase, participants are encouraged to think beyond goals (get more parents reading the documentation and commenting on it), outcomes (parents stop complaining about their child not being in every photo) and what they want to achieve (a documentation system that makes everyone happy), and instead think about how they want to feel. 


In this instance, the ‘wants’ may be: 


Educators want to feel valued, like their work is warmly received, like they are trusted to make the best decisions, and that they have time to spend with the children, being present and not taking photographs. 


Search in and out of the box


Step four involves creating a structured process for gathering information which will help solve the problem, and putting it in a matrix. 


Here, participants look at the puzzle pieces they created in step two, and find two examples of how this problem has been solved within their sector/industry/field, and three examples of how this problem has been solved outside their space. 


“If you want out-of-the-box solutions, you have to look at what exists in other boxes,” the Professor explains. 


In ‘finding a way to make parents feel like their child is an individual’, two of the examples would come from other ECEC services, while three would come from allied fields. 


Participants might look at how casinos make their top gamblers feel important, how hospitals make sure that each parent in the NICU feels their baby is getting the best care, or how aged care homes communicate what’s happening for residents with their families. 


Create a choice map 


In the final phase, the participants complete choice mapping, where they take one option per sub problem (or puzzle piece) and determine how they can be combined to create a new solution. 


“You have so many possible options that you can be combining,” the Professor explained. “No two people imagine the same thing given the same materials. Look at the choices separately, not in the same room. That’s how you’re going to get real diversity.”


Do the ‘third eye’ test


Because choice mapping can create thousands of unique solutions, it’s important to evaluate them and compare the solutions against the wants to get a “big picture score,” then use this to identify the top five different ideas. 


“You’re still a bias-making machine,” the Professor cautioned. “You know your idea is great in your head, but you don’t really know what that idea means once it gets out of your head.”


Rather than sharing the idea in a way that encourages “likes” or support (or dissension) the Professor recommends describing the idea to someone, and having them repeat it back to you. 


“What you need to know is what are they seeing?” she said. “When they tell your idea back to you, what stuck? What did they edit out in the retelling of your idea? Maybe they reframed it and added some interesting tidbits that you didn’t even think. You’ll get valuable information on how to further edit your idea.”


To read the original coverage of this story, please see here


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