Getting to the ‘Third Third’ in Brainstorming

Brick wall with a funny face sculpted on one brick

In his book Think Better, Tim Hurson writes about techniques for productive thinking, which is a key skill needed for lateral action. One of the key points that he covers is the miracle of the third third. Let’s say that you have a brainstorming session and you’re aiming for 100 ideas. Studies have shown that the ideas generated in well run brainstorming sessions will typically conform to the following characteristics:

The first third (up to idea 33) of the ideas will tend to be obvious picks. They’ll be mundane and they won’t have anything new or interesting.

The second third (roughly between idea 34 and 67) will start to become interesting as your brain has to start thinking more creatively to come up with new ideas. You’ll start to get some good ideas amongst the mediocre, but they’ll still be based on prior knowledge and experience.

Around the time that you complete the second third, your brain will hit a mental wall. It’s going to feel extremely difficult to come up with new ideas.

This is a good thing!

If you have exhausted the obvious and not-so-obvious ideas, you’re naturally going to have to think creatively to come up with new ideas. Your brain will have to force connections between things that doesn’t seem to be connected to develop new ideas. You may have to combine motor oil and brassieres or goldfish and golf clubs in new and unusual ways to proceed forward (these are, of course, just different examples of new combinations of things – please don’t try this at home).

In Hurson’s view, the process of emptying out your mind during the first two-thirds of the brainstorming exercise clears out the mundane gunk and gives your brain room to think.

If we use the analogy of marathon running for a moment, you may feel like you’ve ‘hit the wall’ at this point and you can’t push ahead any further.

That’s exactly where you want to be. It sets you up for the ‘third third’:

In the third third (ideas 68 – 100), you have the best chance to come up with the really unusual, innovative and unexpected ideas. When you exhaust the obvious, the much less obvious ideas have room to emerge. You may still get some bad ideas or completely unworkable ideas (the latter is a highly likely occurrence, but it is normal). However, your brain may surprise you and come up with something so different and appealing that you’ll be glad you persisted. Even if you don’t immediately get the final idea, you may find a breadcrumb or clue to an awesome idea.

You Only Need One Great Idea

Like many things, there are no guarantees of success. Much like a baseball player who fails to get on base more than 60% of the time (most fail 70% of the time, or worse), you may not get the great idea that you are looking for through brainstorming, at least not on the first try. Brainstorming is a skill that requires patience, effort and practice to develop.

However, athletes go with best practices to maximize their chances for success. They may fail a lot of the time, but their best chance for success is to stick to what works.

If you go for the third third, your percentage of success may be worse than a baseball slugger. Out of 100 ideas, 99 of them may be worthless.

But sometimes all you need is one stellar idea, a mental home run, to win the game.

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