Don't 86 the onions

Part one of a two-part series.
In discussing creativity with entrepreneurs around the country, I have found a real need to get back to basics in working with the “internal client” in brainstorming new and innovative approaches to their specific industries.

Let’s clear up some misconceptions about the word brainstorm. I have never felt comfortable with this terminology. We are all familiar with one definition of the word storm, an atmospheric disturbance of some kind. Perhaps this isn’t far off for some people’s minds, but I don’t think this is what lexicologists had in mind.

I think they were referring to the definition of storm as “a violent outburst,” “to attack or assault.” Perhaps it’s my nonviolent nature, but this seems a little extreme. For our purposes, let’s consider ways to brainspark. We are in search of methods and techniques to spark that part of our brains which ultimately will help us develop new approaches to old challenges.

Every time you brainspark, force your group to come up with at least 33 options. Thirty-three different ideas? You don’t have the time? Where are you going to find people with whom to brainspark? And how do you do this if you can only come up with 10? Relax.

Human nature prevents us from having an open mind all of the time. We tend to play our own worst critic. If you’ve worked in a restaurant, you know the term “86.” You may have heard the short order cook screaming, “Order’s up! Burger deluxe, 86 the onions.”

It means to get rid of or to scratch. It’s no different in our business lives. We tend to 86 ideas before they have a chance to develop. This is the first reason to force yourself to come up with at least 33 ideas when brainsparking. We don’t have time to 86 our ideas.

I like to think we all walk around with two little, make-believe beings on our shoulders. On one side, we have our internal artist, whispering things like, “Go for it,” “Give it a try,” or “What if …” On the other shoulder is our internal judge, whispering in the other ear, “Don’t take the risk …,” “You’re an idiot to try it …” or “But, it’s never been done before.”

The problem is that too many of us end up listening to our judge before our artist ever has a chance to finish playing. When it comes to brainsparking for innovative approaches to our challenges, we have to allow the artist inside to play with ideas rather than 86 them.

I first discovered this concept while working as an outside consultant to an architectural design firm in Singapore. One of my challenges was to come up with a simple name for a small fabric company the firm was starting as a sideline. While conducting a two-day program with 10 executives on creativity and vision issues, I asked everyone before the lunch break on the first day to bring back suggestions for a new name for this company.

When we reconvened, I brought out my pen and positioned my flipchart to record a series of great suggestions. What I heard instead were 10 individual ideas, one per person, even though I hadn’t set any limits. All were similar to the company’s current name or, worse, a competitor’s. At first, I prevailed on the group to come up with just one more suggestion, and with a little struggle, someone did. Better? Yes, but not nearly good enough.

I started the process over again with the rule that the first 11 suggested names were off limits. I gave everyone a few minutes and asked for a second series of 10. With some struggling, we achieved our goal. Then I challenged the group to find the 11th, and it did. This was the best of the group.

At the end of the day, I assigned the group the task of coming up with a third group of 10. They had all night to think about it. By morning, we had 10 new names, although a few were a bit bizarre.

What I learned is what it takes to stretch the mind so that a brainspark turns into new and creative solutions. The first 10 are easy — the 11th requires effort. The first round is painless, the second a challenge, and the third demands expansion into new territory. That’s how we get 33: 10 + 1 x 3.

Think of the Rule of 33 as a road trip to a new destination. The first third of your trip will be very comfortable. It’s territory you know. The second third may not be quite as familiar but likely won’t represent any unusual challenge.

But the last third likely will take you to a place you haven’t been before, the uncharted territory that represents the unknown, that presents the challenge. This can be the most exciting part of the trip — so don’t stop until you get there. And don’t stop brainsparking until you get to the place you’ve not yet explored.

Keep in mind that creativity is a one-on-one sport, and innovation is a team sport. Allow your team members to come up with ideas, but remember that it takes the entire team to implement them.

Next month, we’ll explore six techniques to getting to the ideas you seek as you brainspark. Jeff Tobe, primary colorer at Monroeville-based Coloring Outside the Lines, teaches diverse businesses how to be creative in their sales and marketing strategies. Subscribe to his free creativity newsletter at or contact him at (412) 373-6592.