Given that we’re wired to act foolishly sometimes, how can we do better?" ask Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life And Work. The authors’ advice ranges from learning from other people’s victories to giving a higher score to how you arrive at a result rather than the result itself. In a chapter titled “Multitrack", they write about how good ideas can sometimes come from avoiding office meetings, so employees can look beyond the most obvious and boring, ideas to arrive at the most distinctive ones.

Chip Heath is professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, US. Dan Heath is a senior fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, US. They have previously collaborated on Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive And Others Die and Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Edited excerpts from “Multitrack":

In Sausalito, California, there is a small firm called Lexicon that has coined the names for 15 billion-dollar brands, including BlackBerry, Dasani, Febreze, OnStar, Pentium, Scion, and Swiffer. These names don’t emerge from brainstorming sessions that yield sudden lightning-bolt insights—nobody gets struck by lightning 15 times. Rather, Lexicon’s magic is its creative process, which helps the team avoid getting stuck in a narrow frame.

Consider the firm’s 2006 work for Colgate, which was preparing to launch a disposable mini-toothbrush. The center of the brush held a dab of special toothpaste, which was designed to make rinsing unnecessary. So you could carry the toothbrush with you, use it in a cab or an airplane lavatory, and then toss it out.

When Lexicon founder and CEO David Placek first saw the toothbrush, he said what stood out was its small size. So, if you were on the Lexicon team, with your mental spotlight pointed at the tiny toothbrush, you’d be tempted to start tossing out names that highlight its small size: Petite Brush, Mini-Brush, Brushlet, etc. Notice that, in brainstorming that way, you would have already locked yourself into a tight frame with two assumptions: (1) The name should connote smallness; and (2) “Brush" should be part of the name.

That early lock-in is something that the Lexicon team has learned to fight. Clients will often come to them with a narrow conception of what a good name is. Some at Intel, for instance, had wanted to call the Pentium “ProChip." Some at P&G had wanted to call the Swiffer “EZMop". Lexicon has learned that the best names emerge from what we’ll call “multitracking"—considering several options simultaneously.

To get familiar with the new toothbrush, Placek’s team at Lexicon began to use it in their daily lives, and what struck them was how odd it was, at first, not to spit out the toothpaste that it produced. (We always spit out the toothpaste.) Fortunately, unlike normal brushes, the new brush didn’t create a big mass of minty lather. The mouthfeel was lighter and more pleasant, more like a breath strip. It was this lack of foaminess that was the brush’s most distinctive trait. So it dawned on the team that the name of the brush should not signal smallness; it should signal lightness, cleanliness, softness.

Armed with that insight, Placek began to multitrack. He asked his network of linguists—70 of them in 50 countries—to brainstorm about metaphors, sounds and word parts that connoted lightness. By working independently, they vastly increased the pool of considered names.

Meanwhile, he asked another two colleagues within Lexicon to help. But he kept these two in the dark about the client and the product. Instead, he gave this team—referred to as the “excursion team"—a fictional mission. He told them that the cosmetics brand Olay was interested in introducing a new line of oral-care products, and their job would be to help Olay brainstorm about product ideas.

Placek chose Olay because he believed that beauty was an implicit selling point for the new brush. “Good oral care means white teeth, and white teeth are better looking," Placek said. After a period of exploration, the excursion team pitched some intriguing product ideas, including the “Olay Sparkling Rinse," a mouthwash that would make your teeth gleam.

In the end, it was the insight about lightness, rather than beauty, that prevailed. The team of linguists produced a long list of possible words and phrases, and one word on the list jumped out at Placek’s team: “wisp." It was the perfect association for the new brushing experience. It’s not something heavy and foamy; it’s barely there. It’s a wisp. Thus was born the Colgate Wisp.

Notice what’s missing from the Lexicon process: the part when everyone sits around a conference table, staring at the toothbrush and brainstorming names together. (“Hey, how about ToofBrutch—the URL is available!")

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