Not All Brainstorms are Created Equal

innovation consultant

Wikipedia gives this summary and definition of brainstorming:

Brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members.

In other words, brainstorming is a situation where a group of people meet to generate new ideas and solutions around a specific domain of interest by removing inhibitions. People are able to think more freely and they suggest as many spontaneous new ideas as possible. All the ideas are noted down without criticism and after the brainstorming session the ideas are evaluated.

It’s a powerful concept, first articulated by Alex Faickney Osborn in his 1967 book Applied Imagination, which had multiple followup editions through the 1970’s. As with many powerful concepts, though, the specifics of implementation matter.

The traditional approach to Brainstorming can fall victim to human nature

We love the power of brainstorming, but we do see issues with the “spontaneous” sessions prescribed in the summary above.  Held “cold”, sessions like this usually fail to deliver on their promise for a few reasons:

  • For most people, coming up with innovative ideas doesn’t happen on the spur of the moment.  Everyone walks into the room with their head already full of other items and to-do lists and the deadline they can’t miss later in the day, etc. and it’s hard to clear the headspace for brainstorming.
  • As soon as the first person speaks, many people will begin to orbit that concept rather than letting their mind wander into other options.  Too often these sessions get input from the most senior (or the most outspoken) person in the room, and too little else.
  • The pandemic and our remote videoconferencing interactions have exacerbated these issues.  Viewed through a screen, it’s easier than ever for employees to go on auto-pilot when they see that someone else is willing to carry the conversation.

A better solution – Assign pre-work for initial ideation well ahead of a Brainstorm session

We believe our approach mitigates the human nature weaknesses of the traditional brainstorming process.  In these days of high-speed innovation and business model disruption, we need to capture the best ideas from everyone, right?

Assigning pre-work for each participant to do alone over the course of several days prior to the actual brainstorming session allows everyone the chance to work on the problem.  In fact, we recommend spanning one calm weekend, with no deadlines or fires burning in the organization, so everyone’s subconscious mind can be working on the problem in addition to the purposeful time they spend surfacing ideas.

To avoid the risk of “orbiting” mentioned above, we believe it’s best initially if people don’t talk to other participants during this period of pre-work.  Have them submit their ideas/answers to a facilitator prior to the session so they can be consolidated with other input.  This also achieves a kind of anonymization in the larger session as the initial ideas are grouped together.

Our suggestion – as the facilitator of a brainstorm, throw in some truly off-the-wall violate-physics kinds of ideas on your submission to see if they help break down ruts and patterns of thought when they’re discussed as a group.

A better solution – construct a hypothetical if the Brainstorm is about a delicate topic

If the brainstorming topic is about transformation, turnaround, or major change to the company, mental blocks can also impact verbal brainstorming sessions, for several reasons:

  • People have deep-set habits of thinking and a mental model of the organization which will shape their input unless its purposefully bypassed.
  • Their expertise on a narrow topic may actually be a limitation in their ability to think “outside the box” on that topic, because they know the landscape and its boundaries so well.
  • Politics and fear of retribution may cause some ideas to go unsubmitted (even in pre-work) if the submitter feels someone else involved in the process may be offended.

Discussing a hypothetical new company or startup division/team/product/service can help free participants’ mind from patterns of thinking, and may also help mitigate the risk that others “take it personally” (although there is no full-proof solution to that challenge).

The power of Brainstorming is real – if you can harness its full potential

Rarely have new ideas been more valuable or more necessary than they are right now.  The pressures and disruption of the pandemic economy and the acceleration of Digital Transformation across all industries make this a time of unprecedented (and accelerating) change.  And who is a better source of new ideas than your team, who spend all day each and every day living with the demands, pros and cons of the current business model?  We hope that leveraging the suggestions above will help you draw out their best ideas and unleash their creative innovation..!