Thinking Bigger: Beyond Brainstorming

Revolutionizing How We Ideate: Leveraging Neuroscience and Choice Theory

Think Bigger is a course designed to help MBA students develop a new approach to creative problem solving.
With the aim of teaching 21st-century MBA and EMBA students how to generate their best ideas, Professor Sheena Iyengar and her collaborators have developed Think Bigger, a course that teaches creative problem solving.
Leadership, Entrepreneurship & Innovation, The Workplace
Laurie B. Davis

You’ve heard it in meetings, brainstorms, strategy sessions—any time managers are looking for fresh, innovative ideas. In seeking originality, they reach for that familiar phrase, “Think outside the box.”

But how do you actually do that?

Most people turn to brainstorming, a practice that dates to 1938, notes Sheena Iyengar, the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business. The only development in ideation since then has been design thinking, which continues to rely on brainstorming. Despite business schools’ focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, Iyengar says, a better mechanism for problem solving has been a long time coming.

“With brainstorming, we engage in what I call idea diarrhea,” says Iyengar. “Free associating and seeing what comes out. There’s very little thought given to what kinds of information a person will retrieve, and very little thought given to how to evaluate the ideas that are generated. Brainstorming is more about what’s sticky and where’s the consensus.”

Beyond the Brainstorm

With the aim of teaching 21st-century MBA and EMBA students how to generate their best ideas, Iyengar and her collaborators have developed Think Bigger, a course on their new approach to creative problem solving. Iyengar also wrote the forthcoming book, Think Bigger, and collaborated on its accompanying workbook. Both are expected later this year.

To develop Think Bigger, Iyengar combined her knowledge of choice theory, benchmarking, and cognitive science with the neuroscience-driven research of William Duggan, senior lecturer in business, and the insights of PhD candidate and creativity researcher C. Blaine Horton. Duggan, says Iyengar, “inspired the core idea and provided some of the theoretical backbone to Think Bigger, and then Blaine, who really embraced the theory, started to think about how to operationalize it.”

Think Bigger’s unique key component is the Choice Map, in which students chart solutions to a specific problem and its subproblems. Students then research effective solutions that other businesses have used, concentrating on gathering examples from outside their industry.

“That’s very important to the Choice Map,” says Iyengar, who initiated the Think Bigger method. “People always tell you to think out of the box, but we never know how to do it. In Think Bigger, we say, the way to think out of the box is to literally go to other boxes.”

Henry Ford is a prime example of finding a solution outside of his industry. Slaughterhouses offered Ford a way to “bring the work to the workers,” he said. In 1913, the Ford Motor Company successfully implemented a conveyor-style assembly line to build automobiles, based on the abattoir model.

Teaching Students to Think Bigger

In Think Bigger, students work in groups to define a problem, then break it down into smaller subproblems to structure the Choice Map. Students then individually research how the subproblems have previously been solved. Returning to the group, they share information and fill in the Choice Map. At that point, they begin combining successful tactics in the Choice Map in an imaginative format, rethinking the options.

Classroom exercises using the Choice Map encourage atypical combinations. “What does it look like to be systematic about combining things, and what different solutions can come from that?” asks Horton. “Where we take an interesting spin, we engage in random combinations.”

This randomness pushes students to combine what they may have never combined before, creating the opportunity for innovation. “It’s like, ah, I never really thought that bringing fire inside, which seems unsafe, would end up changing humanity, because now we have warm homes,” says Horton. Two other exercises tease out more information to refine ideas. The Desires Triangle asks students to account for their wants and the wants of others in their ideas. The Third Eye Test uses feedback from peers, posing the question, do you see what I see?

“What Think Bigger does is it forces everybody to do the search,” says Duggan. “We all bring back things that we learned outside of our own experience. So, the key is we’re not simply tossing out ideas from the top of our heads.”

Diversity of Ideas

Among this method’s distinct qualities are its abilities to leverage diversity of ideas and imbue confidence and creativity. “After every class, the students have to write a reflection on what they learned, and I would say that the dominant learning students take away from Think Bigger is that they feel more empowered to be creative,” says Iyengar. “Other methods have been so reliant on this myth that creativity is about spontaneity, or happens organically, or some people are just better at it, but when you give people a structured approach, you’d be surprised at how it really empowers them and makes them more confident.”

Think Bigger leverages diversity of ideas and prevents the possibility that one or two people will dominate the discussion. “It ensures that people have been given a voice in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise,” says Horton, because every student shares their research, adds ideas to the Choice Map, and conceives creative combinations.

“In Think Bigger, we say, the way to think out of the box is to literally go to other boxes.”

Sheena Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor in Management

Think Bigger’s name might imply that it’s designed to generate grand ideas, but the method’s greatest function is to build on ideas that will have real impact and the potential for growth. “It wasn’t an accident that it’s called Think Bigger, rather than Think Big, because it’s about thinking beyond your personal experience, think bigger than what currently exists,” says Iyengar. “It’s getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and that allows you to start small.”

“We discourage people from starting with a problem like ‘how do I solve climate change,’ for example. That’s not a problem we’re going to be able to solve. You are more likely to solve a problem like ‘how do I create a sustainable alternative to the plastic bag?’ That’s the kind of problem we want you to attack,” she says.

“With Think Bigger, students find themselves empowered when they have an idea to solve a real-world problem,” says Iyengar. “That is what Think Bigger is meant to do.”

Practitioner Coaches

The course also uses volunteer coaches, practitioners who bring their business acumen to the classroom. Neale Godfrey, chairman and president of the Children’s Financial Network, Inc., and startup investor and men- tor Michael Costa, a member of the New York Angels investing group, currently offer their time and expertise.

Godfrey values Iyengar’s innovative methodology. “The method looks so simple and obvious, but it is not. That is the genius behind Sheena’s approach. We know you have to look at a problem to solve it, but she makes you really look at that problem and break it down to its subparts,” says Godfrey. “This stretches our minds and really makes us follow a discipline that we are not used to.”

The method stretches the imagination, she adds. “As Sheena says, if you asked people at the turn of the century how transportation could be improved, they would say that they wanted faster horses and buggies. They would not say that they wanted cars. The ‘secret sauce’ comes in when the method makes you go out on the edge of creativity and combine successful ideas that seemingly have nothing to do with your problem. The students marvel at their new creations and how they have learned to innovate.”

Iyengar’s research and teaching in choice theory drew Costa to volunteer with Think Bigger.

“Sheena has built a team that takes her groundbreaking work in choice theory to another level in reimagining how to innovate,” says Costa. “The good news is that the discipline, team, and methodology she has built can grow to be its own ecosystem, giving birth to many new for-profit and nonprofit enterprises, much like design thinking did 30 years ago, but this time on a much more inclusive basis.”

Innovative Space

When Iyengar began teaching Think Bigger in 2016, she taught the course to 25 students. The Spring 2022 semester welcomed over 200 new students into two sections of the course. Iyengar says the Manhattanville space reserved for Think Bigger allows students to divide themselves into roundtable working groups. Practitioner coaches can easily navigate the learning space to assist students and provide real-time feedback.

When student groups develop an initial, raw idea, they present it to three to five different practitioners. “The new building space makes the presentations so much easier,” says Iyengar. “We used to take over the library. It was kind of chaotic. We also were limited in how many students we could teach.”

Researcher Horton sees the move for Columbia Business School to its new Manhattanville home as auspicious for Think Bigger students. “It helps our students have confidence that they’re coming to a place where they can be their most innovative selves because they’re in an innovative space.”

The Entrepreneurial Greenhouse: Cultivating Ambition for Impact

They’re “all in”: ambitious, curious, highly motivated by a desire to solve real-world problems, and eager to put their ideas into practice. As they nurture the seeds of their business ventures, financial rewards are secondary to creating a lasting impact.

These are the traits of students chosen for Columbia Business School’s Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program.

The first graduate accelerator program in a leading business school, the Greenhouse has been growing student-initiated businesses for more than 20 years.

Successful candidates for the highly selective program, which admits 15 to 20 promising entrepreneurs in each cohort, know the value of resilience versus revenues, says Brendan Burns, adjunct associate professor of business. Burns co-leads the Greenhouse Program with adjunct associate professor Dave Lerner, who also serves as director of Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Design.

“We favor people who are ambitious about problem solving and whose intrinsic motivation comes from making an impact, not from money, prestige, or something else. Those things follow,” Burns says. “We want people who are open and intellectually curious, yet stubborn in the face of rejection.”

As members of the Greenhouse Selection Committee, Burns and Lerner recruit students for whom building their idea into a business is a top priority, not simply a post-graduation option.

The Greenhouse Environment

Students selected for the program work in teams of two or three for four months in their second year. Students also engage with mentors, a diverse group of startup founders and investors, and, in some cases, both. The feedback is direct and blunt while delivered in a constructive manner.

Among the many mentors currently working with students are angel investor Jeremy Miller ’10, chair-man and founder of Health-E Commerce, the parent company of five consumer health and wellness online brands; former California congressional candidate Brynne Kennedy, founder of human resources software platform Topia and co-founder of new venture firm BCP Blitz; Wendy Xiao Schadeck ’16, partner at global venture capital firm Northzone; and Jesse Derris, founder of Derris & Co., the public relations, communications, and branding agency behind such ecommerce businesses as Warby Parker and lululemon. Many alumni who launched their businesses through the Green- house also return as mentors, including current participants Donnel Baird ’13, founder and CEO of renewable energy company BlocPower; Liz Wilkes ’13, founder of the office meditation, fitness, and massage company Exubrancy; and angel investor Jon Stein ’09, founder and chairman of the fintech company Betterment.

“The bottom line is that the Greenhouse is not just a course, it’s a community.”

Brendan Burns, Adjunct Associate Professor of Business

Burns and Lerner strive to keep practitioner-student connections relevant and efficient. Students learn to reshape and refine their ideas through the advice of experienced entrepreneurs, who gain the satisfaction of helping shape the next generation. “It’s very much a pay-it-forward mentality,” Lerner says.

Fitting all the pieces of a business together requires a steadfast attitude and, at times, a thick skin. “We seek to create a safe, open, and candid environment in which students, mentors, and guest speakers can have blunt conversations around challenging topics like making decisions with limited information, running out of money, recruiting staff, and building high-performance cultures,” says Burns.

The resulting network has developed continuity over time, and is available for life. “Trust between the students, faculty, and others is a prerequisite to this sort of environment. Often relationships initiated here last decades and transcend the initial company,” Lerner says.

“The bottom line is that the Greenhouse is not just a course, it’s a community,” adds Burns. “After 20 years we have over 300 alums with a special connection to the School and each other. It’s a powerful bond.”

Making the Pitch

Between 25 and 50 percent of the proposed Greenhouse projects make it well beyond the launch phase. Many of those companies go on to be successful in various pitch competitions, get accepted into leading tech startup accelerators such as Y Combinator, Techstars, and ERA, and often go on to raise funding from the venture capital community.

At Columbia, some students will also pitch their ideas to the board of the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund. Most of the successful companies that receive early-stage support from the Lang Fund were started by alumni who participated in the Greenhouse program as students, says Burns. The fund, which allows the School to support founders via investing in their companies, now has an evergreen pool of capital in the millions that will be used to support coming generations of Columbia founders.

To date, Greenhouse alumni and their companies have generated more than $10 billion in value and have created thousands of jobs. “The program has an exceptional track record supporting student-initiated businesses, largely because creative, talented, and highly motivated individuals respond to an accountability framework coupled with exposure to world-class practitioners,” Lerner says.

The Mindset of Success

One of the Greenhouse’s core values, says Burns, is that “ideas need to be highly personal.”

Greenhouse mentor Donnel Baird ’13 tells the story of how, growing up, his family warmed their New York City apartment with the oven, opening windows to air out potential carbon monoxide fumes. The experience drove Baird to launch BlocPower, a renewable energy and urban revitalization company that replaces outdated, wasteful heating systems with modern, sustainable systems, improving safety, lowering utility costs, and providing local jobs in underserved communities. Since its founding in 2014, the company has completed energy projects in 1,200-plus buildings throughout New York. BlocPower has raised in excess of $100 million in venture capital from funds such as Andreessen Horowitz, Kapor Capital, Goldman Sachs, Schmidt Family Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund, and Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund, among others.

Baird aspires to help entire cities transition from fossil fuel dependency to green technology. In 2021, Ithaca, New York, chose the Brooklyn-based BlocPower to manage the city’s initiative to electrify and decarbonize its 6,000 homes and buildings.

BlocPower is among more than 100 companies launched via the Greenhouse. Others include Happy Family, the first organic baby food company; City HealthWorks, a community health outreach organization; and Flexport and ImportGenius, two global logistics companies launched by Ryan Petersen ’08.

Petersen, who appeared on the February/March cover of Forbes magazine, is a prime example of “all in.” Eight years after he launched Flexport, Petersen’s digital freight-forwarding business is valued in excess of $8 billion after its most recent venture round.

Greenhouse cultivates a mindset that leads to such entrepreneurial success, Burns says.

“We teach a different way of looking at and approaching problems,” he says. “The entrepreneur doesn’t see things before they happen. Instead, they see things as they are before most others have the same clarity. Over time, that pays huge dividends.”

This article will appear as part of a “Teaching for Tomorrow” series on curricular innovations that will be featured in the next issue of the school’s alumni magazine.

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