Summary: One person announces a problem to the room at large. Everyone else comes up with as many ideas as they can to solve the problem.
Tags: Repeatable, Medium, Investment, Experimental
Purpose: The purpose is twofold. Firstly, you may walk away with actionable solutions to your problems. Secondly, this is practice for coming up with ideas.
Materials: Some method of note taking is needed, such as a clipboard with a sheet of paper. A big whiteboard or easel with paper or a projector showing a text document, such that everyone can see, is better. A projector showing a Google Doc or other live edit document that everyone can write to might be better still, though it does mean everyone needs an internet capable device.
Announcement Text: Do you ever run out of ideas? In the same way that we can practice not running out of breath while running by running more, we’re going to practice not running out of ideas by coming up with lots of ideas. Someone arrives with a problem. They announce it to the room at large. Then every single person comes up with as many ideas as they can to solve the problem. This is brainstorming. We care less about the ideas being good than we do about having LOTS of them.
Description: As you start, explain to the attendees that we’ll go one at a time presenting a problem. After the problem is presented, the audience will come up with as many ideas as they can for solving the problem. Go slow enough that you don’t talk over each other, but otherwise go as fast as you can; let the notetaker struggle. We’ll have five minutes by the clock, and then move on to the next person’s problem. The solutions being good is secondary to having lots of solutions. The moderator may call out restrictions so as to avoid overlapping ideas, e.g. “eat an apple” and “eat an orange” and “eat a banana.”
Designate a notetaker if you're using physical notes, or make sure everyone has the right shared electronic document if you're using a Google doc or the like. (QR codes or tinyurls may be easier than trying to message everyone the link.)
Wait for everyone to understand and get settled.
"The traditional opening of As Many Ideas is this: Give me unaccustomed uses of objects in this room for combat!" (Start the timer immediately upon speaking this sentence.)
Variations: You can of course vary the time limit. The longer the time limit the more likely you are to lose the energy and momentum, but the more out of the box the ideas may be.
You can try and track who came up with which ideas and award a point per idea. Ideally this will move too fast for recording on some central chart, so you can instead give people beads or buttons or some other small object to count. Alternatively, get small candies to toss to people.
You can also change the source of the ideas. Instead of having the entire group (minus the moderator/notetakers and the person who has the problem) call out ideas, consider pairing up into groups of two or three with one person with a problem, one person giving ideas, and possibly one person moderating. For groups of two, the person with the problem can moderate. Remember, the thing to practice is having lots of ideas, not one good and polished idea.
Another variation is to deliberately come up with bad ideas. In my experience people will slow themselves down, trying to make sure their ideas are above some minimum threshold of useful or thought through. This is a good habit if you only get to voice a couple of ideas, but for this we want to practice turning those filters off or at least turning them down. As one fix for this, tell people for the first or second round that you want them to deliberately come up with the worst ideas, just outright abominable stuff. It’s a bit like the babbling vocal exercises actors sometimes use to loosen up.
Notes: As Many Ideas wants, above all, to be fast. If it gets two characteristics, it wants fast and creative. Good and well thought out ideas are a different skill to practice. Ideally you want people's hearts to start racing a little bit and for them to get excited and lean forward.
One of the things you’re trying to do is break through the expected “reasonable” ideas, and get into new territory. There’s an element of the hacker mindset here, finding unaccustomed uses of objects or tools. The skill to take away from this is that while we often have no good ideas for fixing a problem, having no ideas at all suggests your standards are too high.
There's an interesting variation in what problems people want solutions for. Deep, intractable problems with high context seem to be the kind that most benefit from breaking out of trying for polished ideas and going for lots of ideas in case you find a diamond in the rough. You don't really want the person with the problem spending fifteen minutes before the ideas start describing all the details though, both because it will kill the energy and because the ratio of "explaining the problem" to "trying to come up with solutions" is terrible. It's like working out: If you spend more time in the gym listening to someone explain the new equipment than using the equipment, you're probably not spending your time well.
If someone starts to monologue about the problem in too much detail, remind them they can call out clarifications as people come up with ideas. Goofy, trite problems seem easier to warm up on. I suspect people are less initially willing to yell out five potentially terrible ways to solve your traumatic relationship with your parents than they are to yell how to get to class on time. ("Skateboard! Electric Skateboard! Taser wires connected to your alarm clock! Bucket of water over your bed connected to an alarm clock! Sleep in the hall outside the classroom!") I tentatively think the best solution is to warm up with goofy obvious hypotheticals like how to dispose of a body, then move toward practical but not that deep problems like how to get a comfortable work chair.
I have often surprised myself by having terrible ideas that, on reflection, are actually not bad at all. My personal favourite example of this is a relationship difficulty I once had where, after something like an hour of trying to come up with clever and delicate solutions, I finally hatched on “just ask them what they want outright.” My second favourite example was, while appreciating a friend's desk, I commented that I hadn't been able to find the kind of standing desk I wanted that also had wheels. He said something to the effect that yeah, but many desks had replaceable feet where you could buy some cheap wheels and screw them on. I don't remember what I said next, but it might have been some variation of "Oh, I'm a dumbass."
Credits: This owes some lineage to Alkjash’s Babble and Prune, but owes more to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality's Chapter 16.