Brainstorming: Is Your Mind Wild Enough to Make a Conceptual Leap?
The notion of brainstorming can sometimes elicit eye-rolls – usually because it's fundamentally misunderstood. Apple alumnus and Stanford Executive Director of Design, Bill Burnett, says we're only scratching the surface of its potential.
Bill Burnett is a Consulting Assistant Professor and the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford. He directs the undergraduate and graduate program in design and teaches at the d.school. He received his Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science in Product Design at Stanford and has worked in start-ups and Fortune 100 companies, including seven years at Apple designing award-winning laptops and a number of years in the toy industry designing Star Wars action figures. He holds a number of mechanical and design patents and design awards, and, in addition to his duties at Stanford, he is on the board of VOZ, a socially responsible fashion start-up, and advises several other start-up companies.
Bill Burnett: Everybody kind of knows the rules of brainstorming. You get four or five people together. By the way you can’t brainstorm with 20 people. Everybody has to be able to see each other. I think of brainstorming like a jazz ensemble. Maybe you can have a trio or a quartet. A quintet maybe. Past that you can’t play jazz. It’s just too complicated, too many people. So we get together and they often, you know, come up with a question and they brainstorm for a while and they go great, that was fantastic. And then there’s all these post-its or all these notes on a whiteboard. And somebody says I’ll take a picture and they take a picture with their cell phone. And then that’s where ideas go to die. Ideas just go to die on cell phones.
Somebody’s got a picture and they all walk away. And then I ask them well what happened? They said well we had a brainstorm. I said well what was the result? They said well we had a lot of ideas. What are you going to do with it? And they haven’t really made it actionable. So here’s the thing. Brainstorming works great for coming up with lots of ideas and very diverse ideas, particularly if you have a really good jazz team that can really play off of each other. But, you know, at the end of a good brainstorm – when we run it at the D School there will be 100-150 post-its on the board. But that’s not the end because you haven’t really done anything. Generating the ideas is relatively simple once you get good at it. Figuring out what you’re going to do with the ideas, putting them into sort of buckets. Often ideas are clustered around certain themes so the first thing we do and the reason we use post-its is then we stop and say okay, the brainstorm is over. Now we’re going to do a little bit of evaluation, a little bit of what we call naming and framing the ideas. We’re going to put them into the cluster – like this cluster is all around one thing, this cluster is all around another thing. These are all wildcards. They don’t cluster at all. We just kind of move the post-its around. And then we try to give them – we try to put the buckets or sub buckets into some kind of a framework and we just give it a name. And the funnier the name the better. These are the crazy grandmother ideas. These are the ideas if ducks could fly or if chickens could fly this is what the ideas would be.
So we give them funny names but the idea is to sort of bring them back down into reality and put them into some kind of framework. Because at the end of my brainstorms if you ask somebody what happened they’ll say we had 150 ideas. It turns out they were in about six different categories and then we ranked the top ideas in each category and we have seven ideas we would really like to build a prototype of because we think these seven ideas ask the most interesting questions around the problem or the space that we’re doing. The same thing with life design. When you finish your three odyssey plans we say find four or five things on the odyssey plans you want to brainstorm because it’s something you’re curious about. I just discovered hey, maybe I want to be a real estate developer or maybe I want to figure out what it’s like to make gourmet cupcakes at a cupcake store. So you’ve got these ideas and now you brainstorm all the different ways that you could create a prototype around those ideas. And then you name those, bring them back out of crazy land into something that’s actually real. And then you have something you can work with.
So at the end of my brainstorms people will literally we’ll say I’ve got 110 ideas and five categories, down to six top ideas and we’re going to build four prototypes. That’s an actionable brainstorm. And then you do the prototypes and you get some new data and the world tells you something that you didn’t know. And then you get to brainstorm again. But brainstorming just for its own sake is kind of a misunderstanding of the process. Now a lot of times people will say I have trouble with the notion of wild ideas. Why do you have to have crazy ideas? Because no one’s going to use the idea. Well what if there was no gravity, how would we solve this problem? That’s one of the prompts I throw. When people are stuck I give them prompts. What if you were an elephant? How would you do this? How would you use a mouse if you were an elephant? How would you do this if there was no gravity? And they have some crazy, crazy idea. The problem is our brains want to cluster ideas very tightly around some core central thing. And no matter how many times we brainstorm if we don’t change the parameter of that thing we’ll get ideas that are roughly clustered around the same thing. To make these big conceptual leaps, to start a new cluster, a new center of ideas you really need to kind of break out of your box. And the only way to do that is to come up with something that’s so stupid it makes no sense at all.
And then you have a bunch of ideas there and then you have a bunch of ideas there and a bunch of ideas there. You can always bring the wild idea back. An example we did, we did an example brainstorming. This isn’t probably the way it worked but for a while people were trying to figure out how do you solve poverty in India. And the idea was we’ll give money to rich people, they have companies, they’ll employ people, there will be a trickledown effect and poor people will eventually get saving. People have been doing that for a long time and nobody – it didn’t work. Then a crazy guy named Muhammad Yunus said what if we give money to people who have nothing. Give money to people so poor they probably can’t pay it back. And that’s micro lending. Now I mean his idea wasn’t to give it to people who can’t pay it back but the big shift was instead of this trickle down thing what if we just give this woman $50 and she runs a cell phone service in her village and that lifts her out of poverty. And I’ll ask her to hire five other people to do cell phone service. It was a completely radical idea that came from upending the whole model, right, that you give money to the top of the pyramid and it trickles down. And his idea was just no, let’s just float it down to the bottom of the pyramid and it’ll trickle out. And that’s been one of the most successful innovations in poverty reduction and in finance. So it’s things like that where you really need a brand new idea that requires a wild idea to get it started. And then you can always bring it back and find ways to make it implementable.
If you think about it the whole micro lending thing now seems like it’s a good idea. At the time people thought he was crazy. Why would you give money to poor people? They can’t pay it back. But he understood the social contract of I mean micro lending has a lower default rate than regular lending because of the social contract of people, particularly if you give it to women. You don’t give money to men. They’re not reliable. I’m sorry. The statistics are not good in my sex’s favor. They’ll just drink it away or they go hire women. And women, you know, build a nice business and take care of their kids and send them to school. So don’t give money to guys. Let that be a lesson to you so don’t give money to men ever.
Brainstorming is on the endangered words list, at risk of slipping into ‘buzzword’ territory any day now – although some would argue it’s already there. That’s because everyone is doing it, but many of us don’t quite know how to. According to Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford University, the process is fundamentally misunderstood – it’s about more than sitting in a group expecting genius to unfold. What’s missing from most brainstorming sessions is the notion that this is a skill, not a magic trick.
Here are 3 practical suggestions that Burnett has put forth In the past: start brainstorming with games and improv activities to limber up creative team thinking; create an environment that encourages wild ideas without any negative feedback or reality checks; have a realistic expectations for a team to improve over time. How many garage bands sound good at their first practice? How many chefs get a Michelin star for their first meal? You don’t win Olympic Gold straight off the couch. It’s a popular and true sentiment that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and while most of us will never have to time to build up that mother of a timesheet, fortunately we can borrow the wisdom that Burnett has cultivated over his many years at Apple and Stanford.
In this video, Burnett explains how to use brainstorming in an actionable way, why crazy ideas are so necessary to break out of thought clusters (which the human mind is wired to get stuck in), and how to ultimately make a conceptual leap forward to your next brilliant idea.
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans' book is Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.
- Scientists have long been puzzled by how specific chains of amino acids go on to form three-dimensional proteins.
- DeepMind developed a system that's able to predict "protein folding" in a fraction of the time of human experiments, and with unprecedented accuracy.
- The achievement could greatly improve drug research and development, as well as bioengineering pursuits.
Credit: DeepMind<p>In the biennial competition, teams analyze around 100 proteins with the goal of predicting their eventual 3D shape. A protein's shape determines its function. For example, a protein can become an antibody that binds to foreign particles to protect, an enzyme that carries out chemical reactions, or a structural component that supports cells.</p><p>Proteins start as a string of hundreds of amino acids. Within a protein, pairs of amino acids can interact in numerous ways, and these particular interactions determine the final shape of the protein. But given the sheer number of possible interactions, it's incredibly difficult to predict a protein's physical shape. Difficult, but not impossible.</p><p>Since CASP began, scientists have been able to predict the shape of some simple proteins with reasonable accuracy. CASP is able to verify the accuracy of these predictions by comparing them to the actual shape of proteins, which it obtains through the unpublished results of lab experiments.</p><p>But these experiments are difficult, often taking months or years of hard work. The shapes of some proteins have eluded scientists for decades. As such, it's hard to overstate the value of having an AI that's able to churn out this work in just hours, or even minutes.</p><p>In 2018, DeepMind, which was acquired by Google in 2014, startled the scientific community when its AlphaFold algorithm won the CASP13 contest. AlphaFold was able to predict protein shapes by "training" itself on vast amounts of data on known amino acid strings and their corresponding protein shapes.</p><p>In other words, AlphaFold learned that particular amino acid configurations—say, distances between pairs, angles between chemical bonds—signaled that the protein would likely take a particular shape. AlphaFold then used these insights to predict the shapes of unmapped proteins. AlphaFold's performance in the 2018 contest was impressive, but not reliable enough to consider the problem of "protein folding" solved.</p>
Credit: DeepMind<p>In the latest contest, DeepMind used an updated version of AlphaFold. It combines the previous deep-learning strategy with a new "attention algorithm" that accounts for physical and geometric factors. Here's how <a href="https://deepmind.com/blog/article/alphafold-a-solution-to-a-50-year-old-grand-challenge-in-biology" target="_blank">DeepMind describes it:</a></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A folded protein can be thought of as a 'spatial graph,' where residues are the nodes and edges connect the residues in close proximity. This graph is important for understanding the physical interactions within proteins, as well as their evolutionary history."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For the latest version of AlphaFold, used at CASP14, we created an attention-based neural network system, trained end-to-end, that attempts to interpret the structure of this graph, while reasoning over the implicit graph that it's building. It uses evolutionarily related sequences, multiple sequence alignment (MSA), and a representation of amino acid residue pairs to refine this graph."</p><p>CASP measures prediction accuracy through the "Global Distance Test (GDT)", which ranges from 0-100. The new version of AlphaFold scored a median of 92.4 GDT for all targets.</p>