The Third 1/3 Effect – Why Difficult Ideas are the Best

Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of conducting a few ideation sessions with various groups of people. First of all, I use the term ideation instead of brainstorming for a few different reasons. First, most people don’t do brainstorming well. Most people don’t understand the theory, and don’t have the tools to do truly effective brainstorming. Thus, to many, the term brainstorming is lukewarm at best – it can produce good ideas, sometimes.

Ideation however, that’s more of an unfamiliar term. At the very least, it doesn’t have the negative connotation of brainstorming. During ideation, the facilitator has a firm grasp of the process, and the tools to help the group find truly unique ideas.

I challenge large groups, when finding solutions to a problem, to ideate at least 300 unique solutions to the problem.

Three hundred!

Don’t balk at that number – we usually have the first one hundred in under five minutes. It’s up to the skills of the facilitator to effectively use tools to get to that 200, and then 300 number.

But then, here’s where things get interesting: to move on to the next phase in the Creative Problem-Solving cycle, the working group gets to vote on their favorite solutions.

Now, during COVID, I have been doing ideation sessions online, using the freemium website Padlet (www.padlet.com). It works just like a giant wall of sticky notes. As we work, we are working from the left to the right of the padlet. We can usually see a clear distinction between the first 1/3, the second 1/3, and the third 1/3 of ideas. The third 1/3 was the hardest to come up with – if we had 100 ideas in five minutes, the last one hundred took closer to an hour.

But, when I gave participants the chance to vote on their favorite ideas, almost all of their favorite ideas came from the third 1/3. Almost none of their favorite ideas came from the first 1/3.

The ideas in the third 1/3 were the hardest, but also the most unique. They required participants to build on and combine other ideas, they required us to make connections with unfamiliar stimuli, and they required wild and unusual thinking. Not all of the ideas we voted for were actionable plans yet – but they were the ideas deemed most worthy of consideration for further discussion and development.

But, when I gave participants the chance to vote on their favorite ideas, almost all of their favorite ideas came from the third 1/3. Almost none of their favorite ideas came from the first 1/3.

How do you get to the third 1/3? Here are my three favorite ideation tools. The key with using these tools is to force participants to think outside of their fixations, outside of their knowledge constraints. You want to force your participants to venture into new territory, and then make connections between that new territory and the problem.

,,1. Word Dance,

Rephrase the problem, finding synonyms for key words. If your challenge statement is, “How do we get more clients?” rephrase it as:

  • How can we acquire more clients?
  • How can we recruit more people?
  • How can we discover more business owners?
  • How can we convince more retirees?

Play around with the key words, and allow them to lead you in different directions.

,,2. 10-10-10

Take an idea, and make ten variations of that idea.

Example: Logo

Drawing – Commercial – Billboard – Animation – Jingle – Statement – Catchphrase – Philosophy – Viral Video – Embroidery

Then, take one of those ideas, and make ten unique variations of that idea. If you have multiple working group members, break them up and tackle multiple ideas, one idea per group.

Example: Catchphrase

Slogan – Game – Quote – Business Card – Joke – Story – Analogy – Summary – Witticism – Criticism

Do the exercise one more time, and then make connections between those ideas and your challenge. You will be in unique territory. The purpose isn’t necessarily for these ideas to be the solution, but to spark new thinking that leads to more unique solutions.

,,3. Far Analogies

Take a word related to your problem – “Client,” and find a totally and completely unrelated word – “Fire.”

Then, create a chain of 5 words that connects “Client” to “Fire.”

Client – Home – Food – Grill – Fire

So now, if your challenge is to “Get new clients,” perhaps you might create new ideas based on meeting them in their home, reaching out to them in partnership with their grocery store or farmer’s market, having a grillout with new leads, or partnering with their insurance company.


Again, the point is: get yourself out of your current line of thinking and your current experiences with the challenge. If you are truly stretching yourself to generate a large number of unique ideas, the third 1/3 will be the hardest to generate, but also probably your favorite. Get yourself into the third 1/3.


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