What is cubing brainstorming?

Brainstorming is often the first go-to strategy by most managers and team leaders when tackling a problem. The term itself is flexible enough to be used throughout different scenarios and is likely to be in the toolkit of most organizations when tackling a tough problem. But running so many brainstorming sessions can cause the exercise itself to lose steam. Simply asking people to “think about the topic” is, at times, not enough of a cue for your brain to start working. 

That’s why skillful managers change the formula by adding dimension to their brainstorming sessions. Sometimes this comes in the form of an additional activity inserted to get the mental juices flowing, or a prompt that invites the participants to view the problem in a new and unique way

One of the most effective ways to shake up brainstorming is by introducing a framework to help guide your group through the process from end to end. In this article, we will look at one framework known as “cubing”, which gives you and your team a direction in your brainstorming session.

What Exactly is Cubing?

While it seems like a mathematical technique reserved for data analysis or theory proof work, cubing is actually a powerful brainstorming tool that focuses on attacking a specific topic from different perspectives. Utilizing cubing in a brainstorming session allows you and your team to jumpstart the critical thinking aspect of any effective discussion. The cubing method follows six different perspectives, taking inspiration from the number of sides that a cube has, to allow you to focus on a specific aspect of a problem. 

The six perspectives taken with cubing brainstorming are the following for the given topic:

  • Describe
  • Compare
  • Associate
  • Analyze
  • Apply
  • Argue

Through these different viewpoints, the framework intends to unlock certain insights that might only be viewed from a specific area combined with others. Essentially this framework operates similarly to divergent-convergent thinking processes, expanding the topic of focus only to further narrow it down once an appropriate level of insight is achieved. 

How Cubing Brainstorming Started

Cubing itself isn’t necessarily a business strategy but rather one that was born out of the need to break writers away from temporary blocks of inspiration. Originally published in a book titled Writing by Gregory and Elizabeth Cowan in the 1980s, they had originally described it as a method of “taking a quick run into your mind” to reach interesting angles that might not have been initially apparent. 

You can think of cubing as a kaleidoscope, which operates by bending light in specific ways to create a new and more interesting portrait for the viewer. Instead of viewing a particular topic directly, like how one might when initially tackling a problem, cubing invites splitting that viewpoint into six different angles that might better shed light on a solution or understanding what better explains the situation in focus. 

Like it’s the original intention for writing, cubing is essentially a tool that helps you generate ideas, keeping things tightly focused on the topic and placing the user in a similarly disciplined state while allowing creativity to flourish. 

Utilizing Cubing to Jumpstart Your Brainstorming

Of course, describing a brainstorming framework is vastly different from actually attempting to do it. To better illustrate the concept of “cubing” being applied to a particular problem, we can start simply by using the framework on a simple topic: Pizza. 

Now we all have our own understanding of what pizza is (and isn’t), but imagine having to create an entirely new flavour of pizza from scratch. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s pretend the concept of “Hawaiian pizza” wasn’t a known thing just yet. Now disregard your own personal feelings about this specific pizza flavour as we delve into a possible scenario of how “cubing” allowed us to reach this novel pizza flavour. 

Describing It

The first step in cubing is to describe the particular event. For objects, this might be a relatively simple procedure as you can also utilize your five senses as a way to describe it. Similarly, if you’re talking about more abstract concepts like “customer satisfaction” or “increased sales”, you can simply describe the situation as it is, with more detail allowing for a better analysis of the situation. 

For our example, let’s focus on the idea of pizza. Now pizza as we know is made up of the following components: 

  • Pizza dough
  • Red or white sauce
  • Cheese
  • Additional toppings

You can also develop a more robust description by describing what kind of pizza it is. You can add additional modifiers such as describing the pizza as “new york style” or “Neapolitan”. You can even add additional information regarding how it was cooked, the specific flavour combination, and more. 

The goal here is to essentially paint a picture of the topic in question. This essentially serves as the foundation for the rest of the steps within the cubing brainstorming framework. You might even be able to unlock insights in this section by adding “why” questions, or questioning your own assumptions as a way for exercising self-reflexive thinking. 

Comparing It

We can now move on to the next step in our cubing brainstorming process, which is to begin comparing and contrasting the topic in question to similar or non-similar items. This allows you to find relatable concepts that can help bolster how you think about the topic, as well as other things that allow you to define what the topic isn’t. The importance of this step cannot be understated and remains a powerful tool in itself when it comes to writing, as it helps ground ideas in definite terms. 

For our example of pizza, you can begin comparing it by looking first at what it is similar to. One of the closest comparable foodstuffs that are related to pizza is the concept of “pies”, which are similarly made of a type of dough, and special fillings, and can even come in sweet or savoury versions. From here, you can begin using ideas usually associated with pies and apply them to the pizza concept. You might be able to say that this may be how the concept of “calzones”, or pizza pastries, was born. 

However, the ability to differentiate pizza from other foodstuffs it’s dissimilar from can be very helpful as well. Pasta, which might be seen as similar due to its usage of dough and sauce, is likely more different than the same when analyzed deeper. Pasta is often prepared in a much different way, ordered in different settings, and even consumed in a totally different way. This lets you see dimensions of pizza that might be better viewed from this angle, such as its determining factor of needing to be a regularly hand-held food, and often consumed in much more casual settings. 

Associating It

Associating, the next step in the cubing brainstorming framework, feels like an extension of the comparing framework. You essentially want to begin by focusing on those concepts that you’ve locked in on the previous stages, such as its usage of different ingredients with pizza, and dig deeper into what the connections are with other concepts. 

For example, the popularity of pepperoni is almost synonymous with the popularity of pizza in general. If you really think about it then, many cured and spiced meats often find themselves on pizza. Similarly, flavoured ingredients can be seen in the family of these meats, such as honey-glazed ham, which combines salty and sweet flavour profiles. 

You can then expand this association by looking at other food that shares similar characteristics, such as al pastor tacos, which uses salty and sweet flavours as a signature for its recipe through the addition of pineapples. Now, you can begin to see how the concept of pineapples on pizza might begin to take shape (much to the dismay of some pizza lovers out there). 

Association itself is a useful tool in line with the previous comparing exercise, as it allows you to dig through concepts that carry similar characteristics. Often the most common way to do association alone is through “word associations”, which are used in focus groups, marketing planning, and other thinking sessions. 

Analyzing It

But association in a brainstorming effort can only go so far with a proper analysis to go with it. Often you may find this perspective to happen in parallel to the association step, such as understanding that cured and spiced meats are usually on pizza due to their ability to compliment the fatty cheeses and acidic tomato sauces. 

Analyzing further, cured and spiced meats often go through an entirely different process to achieve such a strong and distinct flavour. A key contributor here is the curing process itself, which usually uses salt as the main ingredient. But another popular curing ingredient is sugar, which is used for its properties in lessening the brashness of salt. 

Going even further, you can then see why popular sweet ingredients like honey are used in place of sugar to give meats a distinct taste. As such, you begin to analyze these ingredients with further and further concepts, which in our example can reach the concept of pineapples as it’s a common ingredient in different braised meat dishes as a way to cut through the saltiness of certain ingredients. 

Applying It

Now we can see that pineapple might be a decent addition to pizza provided that it matches the flavour profiles already present on the pizza itself. This means heading into our fifth brainstorming step, which is applying the insights so far into actionable steps

For our simple example, we can apply what we’ve learned so far from the process by testing out the recipe in different controlled setups. After a few iterations here and there, it’s likely that you’ll be able to arrive at the standard “Hawaiian pizza” flavour that has gained much renown (or infamy for some). 

While pizza and other food might be easy to apply insights to as it simply necessitates trying out the recipe, you can also attempt the application of insights through small project trial runs of hypotheses in controlled environments. Marketers often use small batch runs of products within an observable environment to see how public usage of said product is in a “real world” setting. 

Applying it, in this case, doesn’t have to be exactly in real settings but as part of a hypothetical situational scenario examination, given this remains a brainstorming exercise. Utilize the collective intelligence of you and your team to develop the process and hypothesize the results. 

Arguing for It (Or Against It)

The last step in the cubing example acts as a kind of “post-mortem” or a retrospective for your experimentation efforts, which culminates in either arguing for or against the applied brainstorming insights. 

Based on all the different steps you’ve taken so far, you should have enough information to either agree with the insights so far or disagree with the resulting ideas. Our Hawaiian pizza is one great example of a flavour that consistently has people arguing for and against the idea in general. Some people might argue that it works due to the different ways it helps bring out a new flavour profile with pizza, while others might argue against it as it goes too far from the original recipe. 

Applying Cubing in Other Brainstorming Efforts

But the world isn’t swamped by questions around pizza flavours, but rather complex and dynamic issues that can get the best of even the most seasoned managers. While our pizza example might have been a bit of a cheeky way to illustrate cubing brainstorming, don’t let it influence you to underestimate the power of the tool. 

You can even create visual representations of the cubing effort by tabulating the different sections for easier understanding across your team. Utilize online whiteboards to better share this tool with others when given a particularly vague concept to ideate on. Who knows, you might find the next “Hawaiian pizza” idea for your project through a cubing session with your team!

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