Level Up Your Brainstorming Sessions With a ‘Hunch Hour’

Photo: AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up for a workshop on writing effective op-eds with a group of academics. Maybe we would all take turns standing at a podium, playing intellectual defense as people searched for holes in our arguments. But what ended up taking place was both gentler and more energizing — and it’s given me a powerful strategy for propelling ideas forward.

“We’re going to do something I call the ‘Hunch Hour,’” the workshop facilitator, Courtney Martin, told the group. The other participants and I looked at each other, confused. Martin explained the premise: We’d go around the table and each express a hunch we had about something, either in our personal lives or about the world around us.

Someone kicked us off. “New York is no longer a global creative center,” they said.

Another person shared: “We no longer care about the truth.”

Said another: “The creative capitals of the Americas are now Rio, Montreal, and New Orleans.”

My own hunch was “The rural/urban blur will save humanity.”

Once a hunch was on the table, Martin asked the group to either “confirm” or “complicate” it with any kind of evidence. Depending on the feedback, the person with the hunch would either make a note to pursue it further or drop it.

While this might sound a typical brainstorming session, it was anything but. There’s something about the word “hunch” that’s freeing. It’s not a thesis, not a hot take. A hunch is a whisper of an idea — something that might come to you on a long walk or in the shower. Usually, it’s something so half-baked that you’d normally never utter it aloud, and therefore, it will never become what it could. I suppose you could call it a hypothesis, but Martin believes that word is too weighty. “You don’t lightly share a hypothesis with a room full of strangers, and you likely don’t judge someone’s hypothesis lightly,” she tells me. With a hunch, the stakes feel lower.

Similarly, when you “confirm” an idea, you’re not saying “I agree,” but rather saying, “that’s interesting — let me help.” When you “complicate” a hunch, you’re not telling the person they’re wrong but rather surfacing a tension in your thinking. This allows critiques to be expressed in an open, nonthreatening way.

“It’s not only about giving people feedback on possible ideas,” Martin says. “It’s also about getting the group to connect, to spark conversation. Hunch hour is playful, and it’s the language that allows that to happen.”

I’ve since started hosting hunch hours at my own company, and people have said it’s been extremely motivating. While using the exercise with our teams and outside clients, we’ve witnessed people leaving the room to continue their conversations with a serious pep in their step.

You can try a hunch hour with your friends, family, or partner. Maybe your hunch is “city life suits our family better than suburbia.” One hunch I recently threw out to my husband was: “Now would be a good time to adopt a child.” (He offered many critiques to my hunch, but it launched an exciting conversation.)

Why not pull your team together and try it? Your hunch might just become something more.

Founder of Making Conversation, senior design advisor for Rockefeller Foundation & former global managing partner of IDEO — fan of words and good conversation.

Thanks to Michael Thompson

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