The Three Little Words That Google and Facebook Employees Use for Their Best Brainstorming

Researchers at Google, Facebook, and IDEO agree that this simple phrase is magic for brainstorming.

Brainstorming with a group of people can be difficult and intimidating. Maybe no one wants to be the first to speak, or maybe everyone simply seems to have run out of ideas. The next time you’re in a brainstorming session and people seem ready to call it quits, try asking a question beginning with three little words: “how might we…?”

These-Three-Little-Words-are-Magic-for-BrainstormingTatiana Ayazo/

This simple sentence-starter might be all you need to make your next brainstorming session productive. Researchers at Google, Facebook, and IDEO all agree that questions starting with these words are sure to get ideas flowing. Researchers even have a name for them: “HMW questions.” Each specific word in the phrase has a positive purpose that encourages discussion. “How” introduces the question and encourages detailed descriptions. “Might” allows for plenty of freedom and creativity. People might hear something like “how do we” or “how would we” and come to the conclusion that there’s only one right answer. They might subconsciously decide that their idea is not good enough, or too “out there,” to share. “How might we,” on the other hand, suggests that any possibility is welcome. Finally, “we” invites anyone to participate, and makes it clear that the task is a team effort. Put together, these three words can turn a dwindling brainstorm session around for the better, or get a new one started on the right foot. These super-simple tricks can help boost your brainpower.

According to Duane Bray, the head of talent at IDEO, HMW questions are so effective because they “allow clients to mentally reset, and reframe a problem as an opportunity.” That’s pretty impressive for only three little words! Here are some other techniques that get ideas flowing, and here’s how to make the last 10 minutes of your workday more productive.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.