Brainstorming with Green, Yellow, and Blue Questions

Guest Post by Michael  A. Roberto

Many brainstorming sessions begin with a great deal of enthusiasm and energy.   Individuals generate many creative ideas, representing a diverse range of solutions to a challenging problem.  Then the moment of truth arrives.  What do we do with this wall full of post-it notes?  How do we select the best idea?  Inevitably, this decision-making process leads to suboptimal results.  Perhaps, it leads to a win-lose scenario, where people advocate for their preferred solution and compete to win the contest of ideas.  Alternatively, the deliberations lead to a mediocre compromise, as the team tries to incorporate elements of several different concepts into a proposed solution.  Trying to please everyone rarely turns out well.

Is there a better way to transition from brainstorming to prototyping and testing?   At Google, some brainstorming teams have adopted a set of three questions that guides the winnowing process.  My colleagues and I have adapted this technique in our work with managers and students.  In so doing, we do not try to move from many to one; rather we gradually winnow down the many ideas that emerge from a high energy brainstorming session.

We pose three questions to a team at the end of an intense brainstorming session:





Green ideas represent potential solutions are easy and fast to implement.  They can be given the “green light” rather quickly and easily.   In most cases, these ideas represent incremental improvements to the status quo.




Yellow ideas delight customers; they put a smile on his or her face.  They are highly desirable, though they usually are not as feasible as the green ideas, or as easy to justify financially.




Blue ideas represent moon shots.  They are fairly wild ideas that push the limits of the possible, because they represent a blue sky’s worth of possibilities.   We find it important to keep some blue ideas alive moving into the prototyping stage so as to avoid becoming trapped into only considering incremental solutions.

Each individual gets two votes each for the green, yellow, and blue questions.

Then, we ask the teams to shift to prototyping mode – usually the crafting of storyboards of their concepts at this point.

Rather than building one storyboard, we ask them to create several – specifically, for the green, yellow, and blue ideas that have received the most votes on their team.   In so doing, we avoid one of the key traps that can occur in the creative process.  The teams do not become overly fixated on one solution prematurely.   They reduce the risk of falling in love with one solution and not listening to feedback from customers.   The teams keep multiple ideas alive, allowing for comparison and contrast moving forward.   Moreover, when they ask users for feedback on their storyboards, they tend to receive more candid feedback than if they simply presented one possible solution.   When customers are asked to react to one idea, they sometimes are reticent to offer overly negative feedback.  When customers are asked to respond to multiple concepts, they can be more candid because they feel empowered to describe why they prefer some ideas over others.

In the end, these questions insure that teams consider a range of ideas from the quite incremental to radical innovations that would transform the customer experience.   As we have applied this technique, we have begun introducing the notion of green, yellow, and blue ideas at the start of brainstorming sessions.  In this way, teams can be alert to the fact that their brainstorming session may be overly focused on incremental innovations.   Alternatively, teams may realize that they have many wild ideas, but no “small win” opportunities that can be implemented easily to demonstrate progress on a challenging issue.  A good brainstorming session produces a healthy batch of each colored idea.


Excerpt from Michael’s newest book “Unlocking Creativity”released this month:  “Several years ago, IBM conducted a Global CEO Study. The technology giant surveyed 1,541 chief executives, general managers, and public-sector leaders across 33 industries and 60 countries around the globe. Approximately 60 percent of these executives cited creativity as the most important leadership attribute needed for future success.”

(yet) “Many creative individuals working in corporations today encounter the same type of resistance that trailblazing artists, scientists, and inventors have experienced throughout history. Experts reject their ideas and prefer to defend the status quo. Technical specialists exhibit closed-minded behavior when newcomers challenge the conventional wisdom or question established practices. Newcomers experience pressures for conformity. Leaders create an environment where people with new ideas fear speaking up. The organizational culture does not promote experimentation and risk-taking behavior. Rewards and incentive systems focus on efficiency and productivity, and they discourage learning and exploration.”

Note from Bob:  What an interesting dichotomy:  Leaders want Creativity – if the new creative idea is their idea  – but they have a hidden bias against new creative ideas from their staff.  Michael’s book will help you break through this bias barrier to benefit from the creativity that is sitting within 50 feet of your office!  You can order “Unlocking Creativity” by clicking “HERE”

Michael A. Roberto


Michael Roberto is Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.   You can connect with Michael @ 


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