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The List of Ten – A Powerful Brainstorming Tool
Don’t mess with Lists of Ten!

A couple of days ago I was having a coffee with some friends in Pretoria, and they asked me to take some photos of them. As I usually do on such occasions, I decided to use the tried and tested approach that professional photographers use – snap away as many photos as possible, and then choose the best one from one of the several options I have available. This is what I did, and one of my friends started to complain about how many photos I had taken when she started scrolling through them. Most of the photos were not good, but sure enough, there were two of three gems that since ended up on her WhatsApp profile.

The photographers’ approach, of shooting at quantity in order to arrive at quality, also applies to brainstorming. I’ve found its application in what is called ‘The Rule of Ten.’ How does the rule of ten work? It’s quite simple.

The brainstorming process is ultimately about finding answers to questions: why did this character do that? What happened to them in their past? What is their flaw? etc. Whenever you are faced with one of these questions, take a sheet of paper, or a whiteboard or whatever, make a numbered list that runs from 1 to 10, and write down a possible answer next to every single number.

Do not stop until you get to ten.

The power of this system is that it forces your brain to go beyond the conventional, pedestrian and immediate answers. It pushes you beyond the boundaries of the obvious. It’s like an explorer in a jungle, who moves away from the well-beaten paths and decides to take the road less travelled, or not travelled at all. And that often makes all the difference.

Multichoice Vuka! Awards ceremony, recognizing excellence in Public Service Announcements. I think they canned it though.

I first encountered this system while attending a workshop for the Multichoice Vuka! PSA program. I don’t remember what the exercise was, but the trainer advised us to list as many answers as possible without censoring ourselves. I found it quite easy to do, and fun as well, and since then I have used the system to great effect in various brainstorming situations. It is often my go-to weapon of choice whenever I am brainstorming by myself.

It also works well when brainstorming with a team. The key to remember is to inform the participants that what you are looking for is quantity, not quality. Therefore, no one is allowed to respond to any of the possibilities listed on the board. You are not allowed to question it, poke holes in it, or in any way critique it. All that is allowed are questions that are asked to clarify the meaning of what was said. And that’s it. No criticism or judgement at all.

However, whenenever I am brainstorming in a group, I have run across some difficulties with it. I will list them below, along with some suggested solutions.

Shallow focus photo of woman leaning on doorway
If you are not in charge of the brainstorm..then I am afraid you just have to accept the situation and run with it.”
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels
  1. Lack of buy-in from the group as a whole. Whenever I am in charge of the brainstorm, I literally shove the system down people’s throats if they are not acquainted with it. I make a list of ten on the board, and tell them that we will not stop until we have filled it up. Often times they take some coaxing and coercing, but when they discover an amazing answer to a question, usually at around answer number 7 or 8, they warm up to the system and are more ready to use it.
    If you are not in charge of the brainstorm, and people are not open to the Lists of Ten, then I am afraid you just have to accept the situation and run with it.
  2. Lack of buy-in from an individual. There are some people in brainstorm situations who clam up and do not contribute much. All you can do is ask them to suggest an answer, no matter how ridiculous it is. In this regard, one useful gimmick I have found is the use of “the stupid stick”. The stupid stick is an object (usually a stick) which grants it’s wielder immunity from judgement whenever they are holding it. They can say whatever they want to say, and nobody is allowed to react to it in any way. This usually gets the quiet people in the room alive and participating.

The list of ten is a powerful tool for brainstorming. It opens up many doors and gets people participating and active if you know how to use it and are open to exploration and play. Use it in your next brainstorm, either solo or in a group, and discover it for yourself.

Comments? Questions? Share them below!