The 3 Horse Rule for better brainstorming

by | Mar 2, 2024

Have you ever had to sit through a bad brainstorm meeting? Yes, yes you have. We all have. And the 3 horse rule can help.

In this post, I’ll explain this simple rule and how it can make a big difference in the quality of your next brainstorm meeting and its ultimate success.

It starts at the top

When I come in and help an organization with its creative culture or brainstorm, one of the biggest things I have on my side is being an outsider. I can reset what an organization normally does in their brainstorm meetings or culture without as much resistance.

A quick way to ensure your brainstorm sucks is to put the wrong person or an untrained person in charge of it.

A common pitfall is coming to the meeting with a solution, or the direction of a solution, already in mind. It can be hard for a project manager NOT to do this, it’s human nature. But it is important to try.

I call this the Horse-You-Rode-In-On effect.

The result is a meeting that has less freedom of thought, produces fewer ideas (and fewer unique ideas) and in general becomes less fun for all involved. And it kind of just wastes everyone’s time.

Don’t get me wrong, there should be clear criteria for what success is. I recommend having 3-5 brainstorm clear success guidelines, but they should not be locked in so narrowly that they completely control the meeting results.

Your brainstorm (and the entire company culture) will thrive and be more creative when they have guidance on the problem and ideal result, but not a roadmap or detailed directions for how to get there.

Don’t define their journey for them. Just create the process that helps them find the best journey.

The 3 horse rule (2 thoroughbreds, 1 unicorn)

In addition to making sure your facilitator is not too specific with instructions and giving clear guidelines for success, you want to create a process that allows for a ton of interaction and idea connection.

You can encourage this early in the process a number of ways. Requiring bad ideas, focusing on scaling the initial number of ideas. starting with anonymous ideation, and having your team learn how to start brainstorming on their own – and the value of that.

But there is one small adjustment you can make to the goal of your meeting that improves the entire process. And that’s the 3 horse solution.

In simplest terms, the 3 Horse Solution helps you avoid focusing on one final solution as the output of your brainstorm meeting.

Instead of having your brainstorm group agree on one final solution, the 3 Horse Rule requires 3 solutions. Two of those solutions should be thoroughbreds, the safer more conservative solutions. And one should be a unicorn, which is a bigger idea (or a bad idea) that stretches your thinking.

You’ll see a variation of this with a lot of agencies who will try to come up with one safe pitch for a client and one off-the-wall pitch. If the client thinks the first pitch is too dry or dull, the agency has an off-the-wall example of where else they could take it to help secure that project.

When I come into an organization to help with creativity or brainstorming, I highly encourage and require unicorn ideas. These solutions are the ones often labeled too expensive, too dangerous, too silly. Unicorn ideas usually get shot down because they seem unrealistic.

Why it works

There are a ton of benefits to the 3 Horse Rule.

It improves the entire meeting because it allows your team to stick with unicorn ideas through the whole creative process. These are usually a little more fun to work on.

The rule also forces at least a subset or two of your group to work a little harder on long shot ideas and how they could be made more realistic. Which helps produce more unique options in the end.

It forces your team to break out of their comfort zone and stretch their creative instincts, especially at more conservative organizations.

And it helps your organization start building a creative idea database. Archive the ideas you do not use in a spreadsheet or intranet and come back to them for inspiration.

Consider using the 3 Horse Rule for your next brainstorm meeting and let me know about your results.





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