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Starbursting: How to Use Brainstorming Questions to Evaluate Ideas

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This post is part of a series called The Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques.
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If you’re an entrepreneur (or working for one), chances are you’ve said or heard something like this more than once:

“Let’s create a new product that will do things the old one won’t do!”

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Take your creative brainstorming to the next level with starbursting. Source: Envato Elements

Almost immediately, your team goes into brainstorming ideas mode. Sally thinks the product should be yellow, Ralph likes the idea of a Bluetooth widget, and Alex can’t wait to design the eco-friendly packaging.

Before leaping into brainstorming, design, and production, however, it’s probably a good idea to ask a few questions to clarify the vision behind the new solution. After all – something that’s built on the basis of what the production team likes best is unlikely to fit the needs, interests, or taste of a larger audience or customer base. Nor is it likely to stay on budget.

It’s easy to just toss out questions. “Shouldn’t we do some focus groups before committing to the development of yet another feature?” “Are we going to be paid a bonus for designing this, since it isn’t in our list of goals for the year?”  “Didn’t our competitor build a similar widget last year that crashed and burned?”

But random questions lead to random answers. “Maybe,” “No,” or “Yes, but it was different from our last product design because...”

The outcome is a chaotic mass of information that’s unlikely to inform decision-making or help to clarify the project’s vision, purpose, or process.

And that’s where “starbursting” comes in.

What Is Starbursting?

Starbursting is a twist on brainstorming that encourages team members to start their creative juices flowing by asking questions rather than providing instant answers.

It's useful when you're thinking of any new product idea, service you're considering, or feature set your team may want to pursue. It can apply in a number of conceptual brainstorming situations as well.

Starbursting is a simple process. Not surprisingly, it starts with a star and expands from there. In the center of the star is the product, service, or concept to be discussed. Each of the six points of the star is labeled with basic questions: who, what, where, why, when, and how.

A starbursting meeting is intended to generate not just one question for each point of the star, but many different questions. Once questions are generated (often 50 or more!), the group sets to work answering those questions. By the end of the meeting, the group has answered key questions and set the stage for rational, focused planning and implementation.

Starbursting Worksheet

Download the free starbursting worksheet to work through the example below and use in your brainstorming sessions. Then read on to learn about how to implement a starbursting session to brainstorm ideas as a group.

Starbursting WorksheetStarbursting WorksheetStarbursting Worksheet
Starbursting worksheet.

Example Starbursting Session: Focused on a Potential New App

Most of the time, starbursting sessions focus on the nuts and bolts of a proposed project. Thus, the first questions asked tend to be fairly straightforward. For example, imagine a business discussing the development of a new app. Starbursting might generate many of these types of questions:

  • Who is the intended market for this app?
  • What are the intended features of the app?
  • Where will we produce the app?
  • When do we want the app to come to market?
  • Why is this the right time for this specific new app?
  • How will we structure the design and production process to meet our goals?

But starbursting doesn’t stop with these basic questions. Participants are then asked to brainstorm multiple questions related to the key words. For example:

  • Who will provide technical support for the app once it’s produced?
  • What will our profit margin be?
  • Where will we advertise the app?
  • When will we start the app design process?
  • Why would anyone want this app?
  • How will we conduct research to determine if there is a market for this app?

Starbursting can also be used to explore possibilities, philosophical directions, or ideas. Just put the concept you want to explore in the center of the star, and facilitate a team discussion. For example, if you put the words “mobile first” at the center of the star you might generate such questions as:

  • Who is the typical mobile-first customer?
  • What are mobile customers looking for when they search online?
  • Where are mobile customers when they search on their smart phones?
  • When should we start designing with a mobile-first philosophy?
  • Why would a mobile-first philosophy be an advantage?
  • How could we attract our customers to a mobile platform?

As you can see, these questions are not related to the production of a product or service. Rather, they are related to the more general question of whether and why a mobile-first philosophy might be appropriate for a particular corporation.

Pros and Cons of Starbursting

Starbursting is a great technique for exploring a proposed product, service, or idea. Starbursting makes it easy to generate focused questions that deserve answers – and often brings up questions that would not be asked in a typical brainstorming session. In addition, starbursting can help team members to think through questions that might not otherwise be asked.

On the other hand, starbursting is not intended as a tool for planning. That means that even after all the questions are answered, you’ll still be leaving your meeting with no clear timeline, management structure, or project goals. You’ll have to follow up with additional planning sessions based on the answers you’ve generated before moving forward with a solution.

How to Starburst

To facilitate a starbursting meeting, follow these steps:

  1. Draw or print out a large six-pointed star. Place it on a white board or large paper chart. Or use the free starbursting worksheet to distribute to your participants.
  2. In the center of the star, write the name of the product, service, or concept you’d like to explore.
  3. Write a one-word question at the tip of each point of the star: who, what, where, when, why, how.
  4. Brainstorm and write down questions that start with the word at each point of the star. Do not attempt to answer the questions yet.
  5. Continue to brainstorm questions until you have at least three questions for each point of the star.
  6. Once you have enough questions for discussion, begin to systematically answer the questions. Jot short versions of each answer next to its question.
Example starbursting sessionExample starbursting sessionExample starbursting session
Example starbursting session - with brainstorming questions started.

Managing Questions

Because starbursting is an open-ended process, it may be tricky to keep team members on task and focused. Each question can easily lead down a long, winding road without appropriate facilitation.

For example, let’s go back to the “let’s build a mobile app” starburst. Alex may look at the “why” point of the star and ask: “Why can’t we hire new staff to build this app instead of loading yet more work onto our existing development staff?”

Alex may have a good point, and she has certainly started her question with the word “why.” Unfortunately, the answers to this question are likely to take the team into the deep and troubled waters of human resource decisions and corporate finances—and away from the topic under discussion.

It will be up to the facilitator to decide how to handle such questions. Addressing them will almost certainly derail the discussion. Squelching them may lead to non-cooperation in the process.

The facilitator has a few options for managing off-track (but significant) questions. He might create a separate list of such not-quite-relevant questions to be addressed at a different time.

Alternatively, she might ask team members to restate the question in the context of the topic at hand. Thus, Alex’s question might be reworded as “How can our staff take on this new project without working overtime?” 

Managing People

Starbursting, like most brainstorming techniques, can become a “bully pulpit” for certain individuals who love the sound of their own voices. To ensure that every voice is heard—and no voice overly-dominates—try one or more of these techniques:

  • Use a timer to be sure that no one can “filibuster” the meeting.
  • Call on individuals who have not yet spoken before, allowing anyone to speak twice.
  • Go around the room as you work your way around the star, asking each person to generate a question related to the next point of the star. E.g., Jean asks a “who” question, then Bob asks a “what” question, and so forth.
  • Instead of asking questions aloud, give ten minutes for each participant to jot down one question for each point of the star. Then collect and write down all the questions.
  • Conduct two separate meetings - the first to ask questions and the second to answer them.

Managing Time

Starbursting can take as much time as you choose to allot. The challenge is to ensure that each question is asked and addressed. Options for managing time include:

  1. Limiting the time available for each portion of the process (e.g., five minutes to brainstorm questions for each point of the star, three minutes to address each question, and so forth).
  2. Limiting the number of questions to be asked for each point of the star.
  3. Assigning discussion of questions to six separate working groups (group A answers the Why questions while group B answer the How questions, etc.)
  4. Posting the starbursting chart and questions in a common space and asking individuals to write and post potential answers on sticky notes over the course of several days.

Variations on Starbursting

In addition to using starbursting for decisions about new initiatives, some corporations use the process to analyze institutional direction. According to an article on the 99U website, Instagram used a similar technique to identify the major issues with mobile photography.

Once having brainstormed a set of questions to consider, they selected three to focus on. After lengthy discussion, they were able to pinpoint the three most significant issues related to mobile photography at the time: “lackluster photos, lengthy upload times, and share-ability.”

Based on these findings they developed a set of actionable corporate statements. 99U paraphrases these as follows:

  1. Vision – We want all of our user’s photos to upload to our app seamlessly, looking exceptionally beautiful, where they can all comment and share without any distractions.
  2. Issue Statement – Today, too many apps capture poor photos that miss the essence of the photographer’s vision. It takes ages to upload or send these photos via text message, making it difficult to share with our friends and family.
  3. Method – We will discover the final needs of our users with our human-centered design process. Lean methodology will help us constantly improve our product.

The end of this story is, of course, common knowledge. Instagram was able to build one of the world’s foremost mobile photography sharing sites and apps in the world, demonstrating how powerful a process of deeper questioning can be.

Remember These Key Points

Starbursting is a useful tool for exploring ideas, potential products, and new business directions. Through starbursting, team members generate questions to be considered – and address problems that are likely to arise.

To summarize:

  1. Starbursting is a form of brainstorming that focuses on questions before answers.
  2. It is conducted with the use of a six sided star; each point is assigned one question (who, what, where, why, when, how).
  3. Participants generate questions starting with each question word.
  4. Multiple questions are generated for each question.
  5. Questions are addressed by the group.
  6. Starbursting is more complex than it seems, and must be managed by a facilitator.
  7. It's a good way to generate and consider ideas, but not a solution for creating a plan of action.

You've answered the question "what is starbursting?," learned about how to implement this process to brainstorm multiple questions, and to generate new ideas ideas as a team. Now, go ahead and grab the free starbursting worksheet and use it in your next brainstorming session.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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