Brainstorming is fun until it gets difficult. And just for the record, I want to be precise about the definition of brainstorming! It is not just a bunch of people in a room with Nerf toys, and pizza, pretending there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Brainstorming can be done alone or in a group. What defines brainstorming is the separation of Divergent and Convergent thinking. Huh? I can hear you wondering WTH.

In the early 1950’s an advertising man, Alex Osborn – the “O” in BBD&O – invented brainstorming, because he noticed that when people criticized ideas, as they were being offered, fewer and less original ideas were devised, and the project was not well-served, creatively.

Osborn started a creative study that led him into the field of psychology and kicked off a vast field of science and research. There are, per Osborn, two main types of creative thinking, divergent and convergent thinking.

  • Divergence is when you let your brain roam free and wide, gathering ideas from many categories of thought and life.
  • Convergence is when you look at those wild and crazy ideas, and you select and perfect ideas to suit the creative need.

You can do this alone or in groups. Or with a friend by email, at different times in different geographical locations. It is brainstorming as soon as you consciously separate divergent and convergent thinking, and you capture ideas as they come to you for further evaluation in the convergent phase. And for the record, the reputation for “no such thing as a bad idea” comes from the Divergent phase, when one is cautioned not to pre-judge ideas, or ideas may cease to flow.

Now for that fun part, late in the day, when brainstorming gets hard. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you think you have enough ideas – and even a couple of good ones!

This is the magic hour – the Third Third. Press on, Ideator, press on. Why? Because as you get tired or sick of ideating, you lose your inner censor. And some of your best ideas blurt out.

Of course, they may not look like good ideas. They may seem ridiculous, funny even. (go ahead and laugh, of course.) Humor is always welcome in divergence. It is the odd pairing of thoughts that make up comedy routines – and great ideas. By now, you’ve already brainstormed through the obvious ideas (the first third) and even the somewhat cool or new ideas (the second third). And most of us quit right there. When your ideas start getting absurd, bizarre, laughable – you’ll see something there, something utterly new. This is the magic of the Third Third.

But – and this is VERY IMPORTANT – to tame these wild ideas and make them serve your purpose, you need to ask this one question as you look at this crazy idea and assess it. And here is that powerful question:

How might this idea work?

The word “might” gets your problem solving brain working, and you’re thinking positively. You might just harvest the most spectacular idea by pushing yourself to the Third Third, and asking the magic question.