When it comes to the Next Big Idea, there’s no shortage of insight about ways for teams to ideate. Do a search for “best way to generate ideas” and you’ll find the likes of Inc, Medium, LifeHack, MindTools, Canva and a host of other sites pitching tips, tools, habits, processes—and promises—to get you there.

I’m not here to dissuade you from trying them out—heck, anything that sparks imagination is useful in my book.

But there’s an important thing to consider the next time you jump into a brainstorming session: generating lots of ideas isn’t the same as generating even a few good ideas. The good ones, I’m sure most of us would agree, are pretty hard to come by.

Why is that?

Our Own Worst Enemies

One obstacle—and a bigger one than you might think—is we just get in our own way. We can’t help it. While it may seem like we’re wading into new, uncharted territory while brainstorming the next new thing, we’re also dragging along some serious baggage: the limited perspectives and inherent biases we all carry—into our thoughts, into the room and into the discussion.

The result? In spite of our best intentions, we’re likely to unknowingly sway creative thinking in one direction or another, ask leading questions and miss the gems buried below the surface. We might like to “leave our biases out of the room,” but that’s a tall order when we’re not very conscious of them in the first place.

So what’s the answer? How do you break free of traditional thinking and create breakthroughs that really matter—to you and to your customers?

The answer is simple in concept, fairly easy to apply, and something you can start using today: Clean Language.

Clean Language?

No, I’m not talking eliminating your expletives; Clean Language is a precision inquiry technique—a set of questions and a way of asking them—that unleashes profound, truly meaningful thinking.

Created by New Zealand psychologist David J. Grove, Clean Language (CL) is used in counseling, therapy, coaching and now, more and more, in innovation. CL helps us help break free from the boundaries of “ordinary” thinking by understanding our deeply rooted disposition to think and speak in metaphor.

Speaking in Tongues

This might sound crazy, but the average person uses an average of six metaphors per minute! Some are as plain as the nose on your face, but others are quite subtle. Give that notion a few extra brain cycles and I bet you’d agree—metaphors almost everywhere, hiding in plain sight.

You see, our brains are wired to seek out reliable, repeating patterns in order to make sense of the world, then use those patterns to think and express ourselves to others. This is so deeply ingrained, we even respond to physical metaphors, like becoming friendlier when drinking a warm beverage, or slowing our pace because we hear words that remind us of “old people.”

It only stands to reason then, that we respond to other people in the same way; their metaphors very much influence the way we think. In that sense, it’s very easy—and common—for any of us to unintentionally “lead the witness” when we engage with others.

Unmuddying the Waters

Clean Language enables people to think for themselves by eliminating metaphors in the questions we ask (hence the term “clean”) and, at the same time, help them get past their own biases and blockers.

Moreover, CL isn’t even really about language; it’s mostly about listening! By drawing from a pool of questions (about twenty, all told), listening intently to the responses, then drilling ever deeper, you can bring very profound thinking to light.

How to Get Clean

The full breadth of Clean Language is beyond the scope of this article, but you can get off to a running start with just two questions—what CL author Judy Rees calls “Lazy Jedi Questions.” These two queries are the ones used most often, and, at Three Five Two, we’ve seen them elicit very dramatic results.

  • What kind of X?
  • Is there anything else about X?
    • Where “X” stands for one of their words

By looping through these two questions, honing in on the metaphors that sound “interesting” or “important,” and using their language (not yours), you can use CL to help people narrow to the essence of what’s truly on their mind (and in their heart). The results can be remarkable:

  • Better clarity
  • Deeper thought
  • Broader ideas
  • Reduced bias and prejudice
  • Absence of assumptions
  • Fewer misunderstandings

Less is More

So, the next time you need a big idea, remember to keep things clean. Don’t rush in to “contribute,” injecting your own biases and opinions. Engage your team with short, simple, clean questions to dig for gold. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” you’ll be on the fast track to better outcomes.


Rich Goidel is a strategist, facilitator and VP of Innovation at 352. He’s passionate about helping smart people work together to discover new ideas and achieve great things, engaging teams to deliver excellence through design thinking and visual practices on flip charts, white boards and any medium that gets what’s in peoples heads, out.

Rich leverages his diverse (some might say eclectic) experience across many disciplines (business and brand strategy, creative, technology, operations) to bring process and rigor to the right problems to solve, in the most actionable ways possible.

Plus, he plays a mean harmonica.