Brainstorming: The 7 Dwarves' Secret

Brainstorming: The 7 Dwarves’ Secret

Walt Disney had 50 names for the seven dwarves. Why do so many of us think we need just one or two tries to have great ideas?Walt Disney understood that to become great, you ideate. Brainstorming was one key of his genius.

Among such odd names as “Graveful” and “Awful” and “Biggo-Eggo” – we find  “Grumpy,” “Happy,” and “Bashful.” Walt Disney didn’t stop with the first seven names he came up with. Disney had seven times seven plus 1.

Ideation is the “formation of ideas.” Geniuses have always ideated. Learn how to brainstorm if you want to be more creative.

Leonardo da Vinci's Brainstorm

In 1489, the same year he drew the Vitruvian Man, Leonardo Da Vinci made a list of all of the things he wanted to investigate about the human body. His list included such things as:

  • What nerve is the cause of the movement of the eye?
  • “What is sneezing?” and
  • Why an infant of eight months does not live?

He made lists of questions and pursued the answers. Curiosity doesn't kill the cat; it makes the imagination alive!

Romeo the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

When Robert May was tasked to write a “cheery book to give store customers” for Montgomery Ward, he brainstormed a list of ten names for his reindeer. Could you imagine “Rollo the Red-Nosed Reindeer?” How about Reginald? Romeo? No, it became Rudolph.

But first Robert May came up with ideas. He ideated as he created.

Why Are We So Afraid of Idea Creation?

There are three reasons I think we don't brainstorm more:

  1. We don't ideate because we don't understand the benefits.
  2. We don't take the time to brainstorm.
  3. We don't want to look dumb.

Let's tackle these problems one by one.

1. Ideation is Important.

Before creation comes ideation. Most people aren't ideating, they're just regurgitating.

Sure, lots of schools are using design thinking. But they are other people's designs! Other people's thinking.

Before creation comes ideation. When leading students in genius hour for the first time, it is a struggle to help them find their genius. They don't know what to create because they've never been asked. They don't know what to think about because they've never been given time to think.

Decisions made without ideation aren’t decisions, they are just cookie cutter ideas with a slightly different dough and a slightly different cutter but aren’t truly an original recipe. They are sloppy knock-offs of another idea that DIDN'T WORK.

[callout]Ideate and ruminate and then MAKE A DECISION. [/callout]

2. Ideation Takes Time

Ideation is a process. We often call this brainstorming. Here are two easy ways to brainstorm.

Brainstorming Method A: Require 50 ideas. I wonder why so many people think they should be able to come up with the perfect idea in the second or third try? If Walt Disney brainstormed 50 dwarves, can't we?

I require 50 scribbled ideas for every brainstorm. The first ten will be trite, boring, and safe. When students run out of safe ideas, they get creative. And when they run out creative ideas, they become geniuses. When creating ideas becomes the goal, we get rid of inhibitions and come up with ideas. When we try to come up with a “good idea”, we stay safe. Safe is boring. Safe is unoriginal. Safe is never genius because safe has already been done before.

Brainstorming Method B: Freewriting. Mark Levy's book  Accidental Genius gives insight into what happens when you have people free write about a topic for an amount of time:

Anyway, while they’re writing, be it for five minutes, thirty minutes, or something in between, I walk throughout the audience to check on how they’re doing. I offer encouragement and crack jokes. I never read what they’re writing. Nonetheless, I can tell the exact moment when the writing for them starts to click.

As I walk by, I jab my finger down on the page and say, “Here’s where you started saying something important” and “Here’s where your thinking came alive.” Almost always, the participants agree. They wonder how I could know.

My trick has a simple explanation: When they begin, participants tend to write in a cramped script that fits on the line neatly. Once they loosen up, once they tire, once their internal editor starts to recede and they viscerally connect with the material, their handwriting relaxes. It happens all of a sudden, and it’s easy to spot, even if they’re facing me and all I can see is their pads upside down. Their letters grow large and loopy, and they take up several lines. Their words grow fainter, because they stopped pressing on the paper so hard. It’s an unclenching of hand and brain. It’s the point where they stopped worrying about being correct and polite and began using the part of their mind that’s original and raw.

It takes time as Mark Levy says so beautifully for your brain to “unclench.” It isn't easy, but when you see it happen you do it again and again. (There's a reason this post started out over 2,000 words. It is now 1200 and I deleted the first original 800 of them!)

[callout]Teach students and teams how to ideate. Teach them methods of brainstorming. Help them unclench their brain and create ideas. [/callout]

3. To Get to Great, You Must Be Willing to Risk Dumb

Why was Walt Disney completely unafraid to have a name like “Biggo-Eggo” as a potential name for a dwarf? Walt Disney was perhaps a genius, because he was unafraid of ideas – even crazy ones. There's one small step from crazy to genius.

Few people remember the mockery Steve Jobs endured the day he unveiled the “iPad.”  Most people thought it was a dumb name.

But we don’t want to be the one people call silly. We stay mediocre, so we don’t get criticized instead of being the genius who stands alone.

If you fear to be wrong, you’ll never be right.

If you’re afraid of looking dumb, you’ll never be a genius.

If you won’t come up with ideas, you’ll never find novel solutions.

[callout]Make your team or classroom a safe place to come up with any kind of idea. Teach groups not to pass judgment too quickly. Help your group understand that “dumb” often precedes genius. [/callout]

Ideate and Become Great

Let me ask you this:

  • What idea would you pursue if you had no risk of criticism?
  • If you weren’t worried about anyone thinking you were wrong — how would you improve student learning by 400%?
  • What would you do tomorrow if you had no restrictions to get kids truly excited about learning? reading? math?

Throw off the everyday clothing of the mild-mannered reporter and don your Superman cape, for goodness sakes. Tackle these questions with brainstorms. Freewrite. Ideate.

Create ideas — lots of them.

Share ideas — lots of them.

Talk about ideas — lots of them.

Yes, there's a time to make a decision. But if you decide before you brainstorm, you've decided too soon. You've killed the conversation. You've buried genius.

So, don't be Dopey! Refuse to let Grumpy or those who are Sneezy at new ideas keep you from coming up with them. It isn't time to be Bashful or Sleepy. Listen to the Doc and come up with some great ideas! Lots of them! You'll be Happy you did! ;-)

[callout]How do you teach brainstorming? Got tricks or ideas? Share them in the comments below or on your own blog. Let's ideate together! Will you share your ideas? [/callout]

Never miss an episode

Get the 10-minute Teacher Show delivered to your inbox.

Powered by ConvertKit
Picture of Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

All Posts »


Gary Dietz October 28, 2015 - 6:46 am


Try 500 :-)

In naming products and companies I’ve rarely had fewer than 250 get on the spreadsheet.

Also SPEED. Just fill up a whiteboard and don’t edit or stop at all!

Can’t emphasize how right you are about not feeling dumb. Silly and ‘out there’ get neurons connecting and people thinking. Plus, how many times was the silliest idea the best idea?



Vicki Davis October 29, 2015 - 5:59 pm

Awesome points, Gary. I’m usually far more than 50, but I’ve found that 50 is something that students can do! And often the silliest idea rocks!


Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere