Using the PMI technique to quickly and thoroughly evaluate ideas

Hurray! Your latest brainstorm gave your team loads of ideas. That’s great. However, without the tools to select the best ones, too many options can prevent implementation.

Generally, you should focus on jotting down as many ideas as possible. The more ideas the better, as in creative thinking quantity leads to quality.

There comes a moment, however, when you are faced with a mountain of possible approaches. When using thinking techniques, it is not uncommon to end up with hundreds of ideas to tackle one single challenge. While this is encouraging, it can easily lead to being overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of ideas. Ending up with so many ideas is all well and good, but you can’t implement them all. You need a way to select only the most promising ones from the stack.

After having selected the most promising ones, you probably want to compare these winners. They all look promising, but which ones suit your goals best? Often, this isn’t immediately clear. What you need is a trick to quickly and thoroughly evaluate different ideas.

The quickest and easiest way to evaluate an idea is by using ‘PMI’. This remarkably simple tool has been developed by the legendary Maltese psychologist Edward de Bono. PMI stands for Plus-Minus-Interesting and is used to quickly reach a decision while taking all factors into account.

PMI

When people are faced with a certain approach to tackle a challenge, two things often happen. They almost immediately are either very much in favour of the idea, or they are fiercely against it. When your first reaction is to favour the idea, you’re likely to ignore all possible disadvantages. Similarly, if your initial response is to reject the idea, chances are you will not pay much attention to possible advantages of the approach. This isn’t unwillingness. It is simply how the brain works. To function well, evolution favoured individuals who were quick to make a decision and stuck with it. Tunnel vision prevailed over considering all possibilities. While tunnel vision enables you to be very decisive, it also weakens your judgement. PMI is the solution. It lets you evaluate your ideas quickly, yet incredibly thorough!

Using PMI, you make sure you view the idea from all possible angles. Here’s how it works:

PLUS
First, you note all possible advantages of the idea. What benefits has this approach? Does it save costs or time? Will it generate lots of media coverage? Will it give your company a positive image in the eye of the public? Focus only on advantages, however small. Ignore all thoughts that are negative, we’ll get to that in a bit. Keep writing down possible positive effects for a set amount of time (3 minutes usually will do just fine). Stretch your imagination, what other benefits can you think of?

MINUS
Now that you have given the plus-side of the idea some consideration, focus on the negative. Do this for exactly the same amount of time. What possible downsides does the idea contain? Maybe implementing the idea will lead to more costs. Perhaps the chance of it succeeding is very small. Implementing daring ideas can even be dangerous or illegal. Most people will find that mentioning all the disadvantages of an idea is a whole lot easier than finding the potential benefits.

INTERESTING
Finally, focus on the elements of the idea that are not particularly positive or negative. What questions does the idea raise? Who will execute the idea? How much will it cost? What legislation do we need to keep in mind? What material do we use? Most ideas will raise quite some questions. Often the ‘Interesting’-phase focusses on the details. These are the questions that must be answered if you take the idea to the next level.

After conducting a PMI on an idea, you will usually have a good indication of its viability. Some ideas you thought were pretty swell, turn out to have lots of potential drawbacks. At the same time, the ‘stupid’ idea that the entire room was laughing about might prove to have lots of advantages that initially nobody was aware of.

Don’t let the first thought that comes to mind cloud your judgement. Consider all factors and keep looking back at your ideas smiling.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Jerry
    Reply

    Hi René, thank you for this useful post. Is there a difference between using PMI as an individual tool and as a tool used within a group? And can you tell if there are any pitfalls related to the effectiveness of this tool? Thanks!

  • René de Ruijter
    Reply

    Hi Jerry,

    Excellent questions. PMI can be used both individually and in a group. The way you use the tool is practically the same in both situations.

    When it comes to pitfalls, there certainly are some things to be aware of.

    For starters, when using the tool, it is important to keep in mind that it is not enough to simply count the pros and cons. Some arguments might weigh considerably more than others in your decision. One enormous benefit can compensate for many tiny flaws. At the same time, sometimes there will be a huge ‘minus’ point that outweighs many small advantages. For instance, it’s hardly of any significance that an idea saves some costs, looks better and is easy to execute if the idea at the same time is illegal or hazardous to public safety. Of course many ideas that are initially unusable can be slightly modified to resolve the matter.

    Something else to keep in mind, is that many people who use the tool for the first time will find it hard to name ONLY benefits in the ‘plus’ phase and ONLY disadvantages in the ‘minus’ phase. It’s tempting to note that one big flaw in an idea when it pops into your head – even if you’re supposed to be positive. The advantage of working in a (small) group is that you can easily correct each other when breaking the rules.

    Finally, it’s important to realise that PMI is intended to be a quick evaluation tool. For a more in-depth analysis of (promising) ideas there are other, more elaborate techniques. We cover these techniques in our Creative Plunge and Innovation Bootcamp (both can be found on this site under ‘services’).

    I hope this answers your questions. If there’s something else I can help you with, please let me know.

    René

  • Soukeyna
    Reply

    Hi Rene,
    This a very interesting concept! I think many can relate with being in situations where one struggles to be creative. PMI seems like a fun and approachable method to get ideas! However, is PMI the only method for stimulating creativity? Does quantity always lead to quality? It seems like a method that works best when involving many participants to come up with lots of ideas… Are there ways to create ideas that are less labour intensive but that are also of good quality?
    Cheers, Suki

    • René de Ruijter
      Reply

      Hi Soukeyna,

      I’d like to start by pointing out that PMI is not a tool to gét ideas. Instead, it’s a tool for evaluating the ideas you already generated.

      A good practise when generating ideas is too come up with as many ideas as you can. While nobody can guarantee that a particular thinking session will produce brilliant insights and solutions, you can increase the chance of that happening immensely by having lots of ideas. After all, if you generate many ideas you will get past the most obvious ones (increasing the chances of an astonishing insight).

      Of course if many people put their heads together, they tend to come up with more ideas than the creative individual. A commonly used way to let a group of people generate ideas, is brainstorming. In next week’s post we’ll cover some common mistakes and must-knows about brainstorming.

      I hope this clears things up a bit!

      René

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