How to run a starbursting exercise for your next brainstorm

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
August 29, 2023
A group of colleagues working in a group
How to run a starbursting exercise for your next brainstorm
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
August 29, 2023

In 1963, TV game show creator Merv Griffin and his wife had an idea for a unique spin on the classic question-and-answer quiz show — one in which contestants were shown the answer and had to respond in the form of a question. 

Enthralled with the idea, NBC bought the rights to the game show Jeopardy without so much as seeing a pilot. The rest is history. 

Pro-tip: Don’t forget to try out Mural’s trivia game template, inspired by Jeopardy.

In a sense, the starbursting technique is a lot like America’s favorite game show: Participants start with an idea and try to come up with the right questions

Let’s break down everything you need to know about starbursting — and why running this brainstorming exercise with your team can help you unlock unforeseen solutions.

What is starbursting?

Starbursting is a simple brainstorming technique in which participants come up with a series of questions on a topic of discussion, rather than providing solutions or answers. The main goal of starbursting is to create a list of questions related to the central topic or idea.

With its emphasis on querying about a topic before providing answers, the exercise contrasts with other brainstorming techniques that aim to solve a problem directly. 

Starbursting often works as a visual exercise. Participants use either a digital platform or pen and paper to create a star with six points. These six points each represent a foundational category. These categories are: 

  • Who? 
  • What?
  • When? 
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?
To create a simple starburst in Mural, simply use the mind mapping feature, or create sticky notes in a star pattern.

These questions feel familiar to participants who’ve used similar techniques in the past; for example, when writing an expository essay in school. The six categories are then used to generate further questions — often several for each category. 

Why try starbursting?

Starbursting is effective for a few reasons. First, it urges participants to focus on specific questions. These can surface any gaps in the plan before it begins. It also takes the pressure off teams to answer specific questions from the beginning. 

Some of the advantages of starbursting compared to other forms of brainstorming include:

  • Faster idea generation: No one has all the answers all the time. But other forms of brainstorming tend to push participants to weigh the merits of their ideas before sharing them. In a starbursting exercise, teams reverse-engineer the problem-solving process by starting from first principles. What do we need to know? This streamlines the overall brainstorming process.
  • Exploration of alternatives: Starbursting is an ideal tactic for weighing questions that don’t lend themselves to a single interpretation. For example, if your team is trying to grow the sales pipeline next quarter, there are multiple strategies and tactics on the table. Do you prioritize the launch of a critical new feature, or do you instruct your sales team to book more demos? There are numerous considerations surrounding each idea. Starbursting is an ideal method for unpacking them all, even when the answer isn’t immediately clear. 
  • Idea iteration: Because starbursting is structured to generate questions before answers, it lends itself to an iterative, multi-step process. For example, your team could break out the brainstorming exercise into two sessions: one for starbursting to find the questions to ask and another for answering the questions via a structured brainstorm. 

What is an example of the starbursting technique?

Let’s say you’re part of a product management team for an enterprise sales software startup. The team lead decides to try starbursting as a way to capture all relevant considerations before launching a critical new feature. 

Some of the questions the team comes up with include:

  • Who will be the core beneficiary of this feature?
  • What will it help our users accomplish or do better?
  • When do we expect to launch the beta and final versions of the feature?
  • Where will this feature make an impact on the workflows of our users?
  • Why are we building this now when we have other items on our product roadmap?
  • How will we measure the success of the launch?

The team lead will write each of these questions underneath the corresponding category on the star.

An example of a starbursting brainstorm conducted with Mural.

When should you use starbursting?

Starbursting is a great asset to the process of creative thinking and problem-solving. Because starbursting emphasizes questions over answers, it allows teams to go deeper and really dissect the nature of their problems in a no-pressure environment. 

So, when should you consider starbursting?

  • You’re looking to get more out of your brainstorming sessions: Everyone knows how brainstorms work. Many people aren’t fans. Why? Well, for the same reasons as always: strong personalities commandeering the conversation; introverts being reluctant to share; everyone feeling a bit ‘put on the spot.’ 
  • You want collaboration to come easily: Fortunately, starbursting and other forms of structured brainstorming make it easier for teams to collaborate effectively without the common pitfalls — meaning your team can approach its next brainstorm with a fresh perspective. 
  • Your team works remotely: Getting everyone on your team to participate in a virtual setting is a challenge. Fortunately, platforms with digital whiteboards make it easy for teams to share a screen and add their ideas (or, in this case, questions) to the same view. No more writing thoughts down on scraps of paper that no one else can see.
  • You need to work from first principles: Whether you’re launching a new product or feature or planning for quarterly KPIs, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. While many different types of brainstorms can help you come up with ideas, starbursting is the only one that prioritizes the questions before the answers. This operationalizes the art of seeing the same problem from a different angle.

5 steps to a successful starbursting exercise for remote teams

Starbursting can be used to interrogate some of your team's most basic assumptions about the work they do every day. And remote teams shouldn’t miss out on the chance. 

Here’s how to get started starbursting in five easy steps. 

1. Start from a blank canvas or use a template 

Solutions like Mural make it easy for teams to brainstorm, strategize, and plan — all from the comfort and accessibility of a visual work platform. 

You can save additional time by selecting a brainstorming template from Mural’s template library. 

2. Build your 6-pointed star

Simple as can be — just use your digital whiteboard (or, even better, your mural canavs) to outline the shape of a star with six points to get started. Don’t forget to include space in the middle for your problem statement

3. Add the foundational category questions: who, what, when, why, where, and how, as well as the problem statement

You can assign a facilitator or team leader to take care of the setup. They’ll also be in charge of deciding how long to spend on each topic or the minimum number of questions to add to each category. 

4. Brainstorm questions for each point of the star. 

Structured brainstorms like these work best when you tell people what to expect. For example, in order to come up with a minimum of 18 questions, you can instruct teams to leave a minimum of three questions per category. 

You’ll also want to prescribe a time limit — whether for each section or the entire activity is up to you. 

5. Schedule a time to brainstorm answers.

With your questions in hand, you can either choose to attempt answers in one go or schedule a follow-up brainstorm to tackle them later. 

In either case, make sure there is enough time and space given to allow the creative process to thrive — and to reflect on what you’ve learned as part of any next steps. 

Get started with starbursting

Starbursting is an unorthodox way of approaching the most pressing problems in your organization. 

But by choosing to take a step back and start with an inquiry into the problem, you’re preparing your team to surface insights they might have simply glossed over. 

Ready to get started with a starbursting exercise of your own? Make sure to check out Mural’s template library to save your team time and inspire their next breakthrough.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.