A Napkin Sketch Is Enough

In a recent brainstorming exercise with my team, I expected to dive deep into the work, tuning our understanding of business models while working under pressure to create as many ideas as possible in a short time. We did just that, relishing our creativity and ingenuity.

Yet the most satisfying outcome wasn’t how deep or wide we ranged as much as the practice of creating the right space for it to happen. Allowing discovery, allowing the best work to shine through. The moment created by the creative space was the true prize.

In our session there grew a playfulness and a natural building up of ideas as serendipitous intersections occurred where a concept, channel, or stream could be cloned to adapt to a new business idea. Growing, it created momentum and provided a sense of space — room to roam.

The diversity of the team made for richer output as we kept exploring. Ideas born from one member cloned rapidly into new ones by tapping into our backgrounds, affinities, and environments. Though we started together pitching and editing out loud, it was slow going. The pace accelerated only after a 45-minute switch to brainwriting, writing solo to bring more life to the list. We successfully avoided the problem of “one loud voice” by taking turns narrating and typing.

Creating the space to run together started with finding a format that built enough structure without slowing us down. We later dubbed this the napkin sketch for its simplicity.

The napkin sketch technique produces a great number of ideas without too much detail. Just enough to explain a business idea or “micro” business model to a friend in plain English.

Here’s how it works:
1. Outline and pitch the business idea.
2. Detail the basics only: value proposition, market, costs, and revenue.
3. If you feel a spark, clone the sketch and adapt it.
4. Repeat until you run out of ideas.

If you freeze an idea too quickly, you fall in love with it. If you refine it too quickly, you become attached to it and it becomes very hard to keep exploring, to keep looking for better. The crudeness of the early models in particular is very deliberate.
 — Jim Glymph, architect
Jim Glymph (Gehry Partners, architects 1990–2007) explains the value of crude early models—what my team called “Napkin sketches.”