How to out-think your business competition

A standard approach to the resolution of business problems is to ‘brainstorm’ a range of possible solutions. The problem is that the method doesn’t work!

How many times have you sat through a brainstorming session and thought ‘I could have produced that list of solutions on my own?’ How many times has the most senior or dominant person in the group railroaded everyone else into accepting their solutions at the expense of potentially good ideas from quieter or less senior participants?

So, if you want to out-smart your competitors, you need to start using some smart thinking techniques.

Stop brainstorming and start using some smart thinking techniques

We solve a problem best when we walk away from it, allowing our subconscious mind to work on the problem by exploring relevant past experiences and present us with ideas based on past solutions to similar problems. Traditional brainstorming doesn’t allow us to do that.

If you want to out-think your competitors, you need to think differently. Thinking the same way as they do will do little to set you apart from them. Let’s explore a range of tools and techniques you can use to think smarter, more collaboratively, and creatively.

1. Brain-friendly brainstorming

Get together a group of people who are sufficiently clever to understand the nature of your problem, regardless of whether they have much experience in that area.

Ideally, involve one or two relative newcomers to the business who don’t carry with them the baggage that more established staff bring.

  • State the problem and invite a small number of clarifying questions, without getting bogged down in discussion. Be careful to frame the real problem – you will get answers to the question you ask, so make sure you ask the right question.
  • Brainstorm the issue for no more than two minutes, writing the suggested solutions on a flipchart, with no discussion.
  • Now stop. For two minutes, discuss something unrelated to the pressing problem. This gives the participants’ subconscious minds the time to work through similar or related past experiences without the interference of the critical faculty of the conscious mind.
  • Restate the problem and brainstorm the issue for another two minutes, again documenting the ideas on a flipchart, with no discussion. You should notice that the ideas generated after the two minute enforced break are more creative than those offered in the first two-minute session.

To avoid the problem of lengthy discussions of the ideas posited by the dominant/senior participants, try this more democratic method of filtering the suggestions:

  • Read out the first idea
  • Ask for a show of hands – who thinks it is worthy of further discussion?
  • Who believes it is not worthy of further discussion?
  • If the majority believes that it is worth exploring, give the idea a green plus (+); if not, give it a red minus (-); if it is interesting but not strictly relevant to the current discussion, mark it with a neutral coloured ‘i’ (for ‘interesting’).
  • Do the same for each idea in turn

Now you need only focus your discussions on the ideas with the green + mark – in seconds you have created a filtered list of good ideas through an entirely democratic process.

RELATED: A New way to brainstorm – Getting great business ideas with ‘The Idea Generator’

2. Reverse brainstormingBrainstorming, problem solving & decision making

Even using the method just described, you may find some fairly pedestrian solutions emerging. To avoid this, try reverse brainstorming.

Brainstorm every possible way to create the problem, then use the list to stimulate ideas to resolve the real problem. You’ll be astonished at the creative solutions which emerge.

Do be careful in facilitating a reverse brainstorming session, because some participants will suggest silly ideas simply for effect.

Take care, too, to steer the participants away from simply reversing each brainstormed idea to create a viable solution – use the brainstormed ideas as a springboard or catalyst for sensible solutions.

3. Life through a lens

One of the obstacles to smart thinking is that we tend to think smartly within the restrictive confines of our own subject expertise. If we were to present our problem to someone working in a completely different field, would they bring fresh insights?

Life through a lens is designed to help us see things from another perspective:

  • Bring together a group of people with knowledge of the problem area
  • State the problem, again taking care to ensure that is well framed and focused
  • Now ask how an expert from a different field would tackle/resolve the problem; for example:
    • A doctor (e.g. diagnosing the causes of the problem)
    • A lawyer (e.g. exploring an opposing argument before reaching any conclusions)
    • An engineer (e.g. deconstructing the problem to see how the component parts interact and assessing whether each element actually serves a valid purpose)
    • A chef (e.g. checking that all the ingredients are in place before creating something new
    • An office cleaner
    • A politician
    • A statistician
    • An astronomer

Add as many experts as you like to the list, assessing how their unique qualities would bring something new to the discussion.

RELATED: Relaxing for success – how to use Edison’s proven technique to solve problems and become more innovative

4. Evolution

The evolutionary theory contends that the fittest will survive.

Evolution is a tool to help senior decision makers and functional leaders in your organisation when there is real concern about the direction that the organisation is taking (for example, following a downturn in profits; a decrease in the take-up of the services you offer; reputational damage to the organisation).

It requires openness and honesty and will not work with a group dominated by people with personal agendas.

Small groups spend time establishing the aspects of the business are that the strongest and so (in evolutionary terms) the most likely to survive, by asking questions such as:

  • What can we do to ensure the survival of that area of the business?
  • How can we further develop the strongest areas to be even stronger?
  • If we focus too much on a limited number of areas of the organisation, are we in danger of missing something important elsewhere?
  • What will happen to the weaker areas, if we focus on the stronger areas?
    • Can they be bolstered to survive?
    • Can we survive if we let them die/kill them off?
    • What would be the effects of closing them?
    • What would it cost us to shore up the weaker areas, and is it worth it?
  • What would business as usual look like if we develop the stronger areas and abandon or scale down the weaker areas?

The discussions have to be handled very sensitively, because they will naturally threaten some of those working in the weaker areas of the business.

Equally, there must be tough debate, because you cannot run a business with passengers – whole groups which contribute little to the business or are seen to have no long-term future.


The smart thinking techniques outlined here are just four of many which, carefully applied, will help you to get ahead of your competitors.

Most businesses lack creativity in problem-solving and so produce lacklustre ideas. Find the method which best matches your business issue and the creative seeds which you sow will yield you a rich harvest of ideas.

About the author

This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by David Cotton, a freelance business trainer and author of The Smart Solution Book (FT Pearson 2016), the most comprehensive collection of business problem-solving and decision-making techniques available.

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