The Third Third of Brainstorming

Posted by Kristin Arnold on June 20, 2022

In every brainstorming session, there are three periods of idea generation – and most teams rarely play the last third of the game!

Tim Hurson, in his book Think Better, describes the three periods of play like this:

The First Third of the session “tends to produce mundane, every-one-has-thought-of-them-before ideas.  These are the early thoughts that lie very close to the surface of our consciousness.  They tend not to be new ideas at all but recollections of old ideas we’ve heard elsewhere.  They are essentially reproductive thoughts.”

The Second Third of a good brainstorming session “produces ideas that begin to stretch boundaries.  These are the ideas that are often still constrained by what we know but are more than simple regurgitations of what we’ve heard or thought before.”

Most people give up at this point.  They stretched a little, and the list is “big enough” so they are ready to sift through and evaluate those ideas.

BUT, if you are truly looking for creativity, (and let’s face it, true innovation is NOT the goal of many a brainstorming session), play that last period of the brainstorming game.

The Third Third, according to Hurson, “is where the diamonds lie. These are the potential breakthrough ideas that often lead to innovative solutions.  These are the unexpected connections.”

“Good brainstorming sessions,” according to Hurson, “don’t end with the second third.  They go further, extending beyond the point at which the session participants start thinking, ‘Okay, we’re dry.  That’s all there is.’  It’s precisely at the ‘we’re dry’ stage that the magic happens, because by then the old ideas have been flushed out.  It’s the very frustration of running out of ideas that gives the third third ideas a chance to develop.”

The Third Third of Brainstorming

Even though all the top-of-mind ideas are exhausted, you can stretch the team even more using these Third Third starters, encouraging them to get out of their head and inspire out-of-the-box thinking:

  • How Might Others: How might your customers answer the question?  How might your boss answer it?  How might your best friend answer it?  Your worst enemy?  An alien? Your mentor?  A retired person?  A child?…
  • How Else:  How else might we solve the problem?  Who else might be involved?  Where else might a solution come from?  What else can we do?  What else haven’t we thought of yet?
  • The Unlimited Question:  What if you had unlimited time? Unlimited funds?  You knew you couldn’t fail?
  • The Favorites Question:  How might your favorite author solve the problem?  Favorite fictional character?  Fiction hero?  Fictional villain?  Comic book superhero?
  • The Guarantee to Fail: What would guarantee your failure?  Get you fired?  Land you in jail? – and then turn them around to come up with potentially useful answers.
  • Forced Connections:  Observe the world around you and select something that sparks your interest.  Ask the team, how might this work/be applied in this situation?
  • Analogies:  Similarly, select something interesting or unusual and ask, “How is this similar and/or different from this situation?”

Hurson says,

“If you let it, your mind will jump on new stimuli and automatically make dozens of unexpected connections.  If you pay attention to them, you may discover the answer you’ve been looking for.”

That being said, sometimes, you just hit the proverbial wall.  You got nothing…and you think you’ve exhausted all the ideas.  Don’t be so sure about that!

Take a Break.  STOP thinking about it.  Go for a walk.  Listen to music.  Take a shower.  Let your mind relax and ideas will show up when we least expect it.  (I call this “marinade time” – time to let your subconscious play with the brainstorming topic and ideas!)

Look at Your List.  Review the brainstorming list of ideas your team has already generated and see if there are any interesting combinations.  Pick two ideas at random and explore the connection between them.  Hurson says, “If you don’t see one [a connection], make one.  What does that connection suggest?”

The Third Third of brainstorming often creates a new burst of energy with lots of laughter especially as ideas are called out that are a little out of the ordinary – and stimulates even more creative and innovative ideas!

Hurson cautions, “Of course, there is no guarantee that Third Third ideas will be great ideas or even good ideas.  In fact, it’s very likely that the vast majority of them will be lousy.  But it’s also true that you will have a great chance of coming up with that one brilliant idea if you get all the way to the Third Third than if you stop at the first ‘right’ idea.”


Related Articles:

Sort Your Brainstormed List to Take ACTION

Voting Variations to Narrow a Brainstormed List

How to Brainstorm a List at a Meeting


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.

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