When brainstorming new ideas, features or products, it can be very easy to get bogged down asking the wrong questions or trying to solve the wrong problems. A key component of this may in fact be the language being used to define these problems, which can cause creativity to be stifled.
An example is using statements like "how can we do this?" or "how should we do that?". In both cases, these statements are implying judgement, and seeding the idea of "can we really do this?" or "should we be doing this?" - again all statements that have a big potential to close down creativity.
A very simple solution to this is the 'How Might We...' methodology. Originally developed at Procter & Gamble, this method is now employed by Google, Facebook and IDEO to jumpstart their creativity, so it has very good pedigree.
(I discovered the methodology and stories in this post via Warren Berger).
A History of How Might We
In the 1970's, marketers at P&G were trying desperately to compete with Colgate-Palmolive who had released a new soap product called Irish Spring. This featured a green deodorising stripe within the soap, and was achieving great cut through with customers.
Consultant Min Basadur was brought in to help the team. They already had a few of their own green stripe products out in the market, but none were able to best Irish Spring, and they were fresh out of ideas.
Basadur had the insight that the marketing team might be asking the wrong questions. Instead of saying "How can we make a better green stripe bar" they should be asking a more ambitious question - "How might we be making a more refreshing soap of our own".
When this questions was phrased, instantly the creative floodgates were opened, and ideas came flowing out. This led to further questioning - "Why were we trying to make another green striped soap?" and "Why are we trying to copy a competitor, instead of thinking about what the customer ultimately wants (i.e refreshment)".
Brainstorming ended up with the insight that the feeling of refreshment is often associated with the seacoast. This led to the creation of the Coast soap brand (featuring a blue-striped bar) that became a hugely successful brand in its own right.
Why It Works
Fundamentally, the statement 'How Might We...' works due to simple semantics. 'How' assumes that there are solutions out there, so it provides confidence. 'Might' suggests that the group can put ideas out there that might work or might not - either way it is ok. Lastly, 'We' suggests the group is going to do it together and build on each other's ideas.
As a final tip, 'How Might We...' works best with problems that are ambitious and yet achievable. So if the problem is extremely broad ("How might we solve world hunger") or extremely narrow ("How might we increase profits by 5% next quarter) it loses its power - you need to find the sweet spot between the two.
The next time you are creating a brainstorm or workshopping a new campaign, try starting the session with the question "How might we...". It might go a long way to creating better ideas to solve the brands problems.
A revised version of this article is available on Strategy Umwelt.