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Burn the Popcorn: Stop Traditional Brainstorming -

Your process improvement effort is going splendidly! You flowcharted, collected data, determined root cause and now, you finally get to discuss solutions. Sometimes the solutions are obvious – but what if they aren’t?

It doesn’t take hours of brainstorming to understand that Standard Work might be a good place to start when people are confused about a process and everyone performs it differently. But what do you do to get the best solutions for the trickier situations?


Do you minimize all that hard preparatory work by launching a traditional brainstorming session? You know, the sessions where people just randomly “pop” out ideas, often referred to as “Popcorn brainstorming.” It assumes that all ideas are good ideas (no criticism), people will be inspired by other ideas, and it produces the most ideas.

However, the method rarely gets the desired results. Keith Sawyer, Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina, summarizes the situation in his book Group Genius: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Debate Is Good

Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley tested the creativity of teams in the U.S. and France in various conditions, including classic (Popcorn) brainstorming and debate. Which teams did the best? You guessed it, debate.

Groups in the debate condition were told research shows that debate stimulates more ideas. While the researchers couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause for debate’s success, it appears that when we position debate as a way to encourage more ideas, it leads to less concern about evaluation or “being wrong.” This makes the discussions less personal.


If brainstorming with open debate makes you squeamish, think about approaching it as improvisation. Improv is gaining interest in business as a way to teach creativity, innovation, communication, teamwork and leadership. It can be applied here as a technique to “gently debate.”

In improv, nothing is wrong. It is “Yes and…” For example, if I say we can increase airline revenue by putting seats on the wings of planes, you can respond with, “Yes, and we can build another floor or insert more rows.”

Twilight Zone

Lastly, we know that random intersections of ideas and cross pollination of disciplines and industries can result in even more creativity. We can get great results by connecting and combining objects and concepts that seem unrelated. What happens if you are Boeing and you cross building airplanes with farming? You get a hay-loader type device that more quickly lifts seats into an airplane.

Burn or Scorch

At a minimum, all of this tells us to burn, or at least scorch, that popcorn. We want to allow methods that include individual reflection, group interaction, idea cross-pollination, and we want some discussion and debate to spur more ideas.

2 Ways to Generate Better Ideas


A tool that provides the time and structure to generate ideas alone and in a group, along with providing an opportunity for unusual combinations and connections. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Establish a problem/issue statement
  2. In 5 minutes, using grids on flip charts or 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper, each person writes three ideas in the top row of his/her sheet or flip chart – about 6-10 words
  3. At the end of 5 minutes, pass the worksheet to the person on the right or move to the next flipchart
  4. Expand on an idea, write a variation of any previous idea, generate a completely unrelated idea. You do not always have to fill in a cell, if you have no further additions
  5. Narrow choices with other tools


Problem: Reduce reporting errors

Reduce reporting errors


  1. The facilitator identifies a similar or analogous situation and generates ideas around this second situation in order to help unblock people’s thinking
  2. Review the list and ask participants how the ideas generated can apply to the original topic/issue
  3. Choose a technique to narrow and debate the final solutions


Problem: Reducing errors in customer applications

Reducing errors in customer applications

So, what do you do to get the best solutions for the trickier situations? We’d love to hear your ideas! Share in the comments below.

Ready to put these brainstorming tips to good use? Register for Green Belt Training and start “burning the popcorn!”

Carol Knight-Wallace

For more than 25 years, Carol Knight-Wallace has been helping organizations in the public and private sectors achieve excellence through Lean Six Sigma application, project management, strategic planning, and facilitation. Her experience includes Fortune 100 financial services companies, healthcare, manufacturing, government, non-profit, and higher education.