“14 surprising reasons why you should stop brainstorming”
on Innovationexcellence.com. We thought the article is provocative and challenges the process of brainstorming sessions as we all know them, and therefore suitable to share with the wider ILF community in one of our newsletters.
The article suggests that rarely amazing new ideas stem from brainstorming meetings and a fair bit of the process and structure of brainstorming works contrary to what is required to facilitate exceptional, new, business thinking. According to Chris Thomason:
“Conventional brainstorming is – to be blunt – a terrible waste of good-people’s time.”
He presents Keith Sawyer, a psychologist from Washington University, findings, which concluded: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their idea”. He requires that brainstorming should be replaced with new methods of thinking based on more recent scientific knowledge about our mind and technology. You can read the full article here.
Unexpectedly, we managed to encourage a debate around this topic and kindly received an answer in the form of the following article on:
“14 Reasons Why You Should Keep on Brainstorming”
A title like “14 Reasons Why You Should Stop Brainstorming” was always going to get my attention. I have believed for a very long time that brainstorming is the most powerful way of generating ideas. So, I have to admit from the outset that I was predisposed to disagree with this bold statement from Chris Thomason – and disagree I certainly do! I’ve used Chris’s headers to structure my response.
#1 There are no dumb ideas.
Encourage wild and exaggerated thinking Encouraging wild ideas works! If you start constrained, it is in my experience difficult to expand thinking. However, it’s always very straightforward to narrow thinking from an idea that is too ambitious. Trying to eliminate ‘wild’ ideas before they are hatched ignores two important points. In order to eliminate, we have to judge and judgement is the death of embryonic ideas. Better to let it out and then decide later not to develop it than to stifle the very thought that might have led to a cure for cancer, for example. Some of the most extraordinary ideas that have ever graced the planet started as wild ideas – everyone thought Einstein was mad until others demonstrated conclusively that he was a genius. In addition, banning wild ideas misunderstands the nature of ideas. When generating ideas (with judgement on hold) there will be, by definition good ideas and bad ideas. We only know the difference once we have subjected an idea to the critical process of reason – an entirely different sort of thinking to that required for generating ideas. It would be a bit like instructing Wayne Rooney to never miss a goal – you need to miss a few to get a few. To conclude on this point, I would offer this thought: a bad idea is a good idea that’s a bit ahead of its time!
#2 Quantity counts at this stage, not quality
You need quantity in the first instance because this is what delivers the raw material to work on. If I was up to my neck in alligators, I would want to have a bit more than a single idea to work with. The secret is not spending too long generating that quantity. I once heard of a 14-hour brainstorming session. As you might imagine, it was tough going. Eventually, one of the participants said he’d had enough and announced he was retiring the Jacuzzi with a drink. Unsurprisingly, the rest followed and, ten minutes later, the problem had been solved. The actual brainstorm happened in a couple of minutes while surrounded by bubbles. The preceding thirteen and a half hours was just a bad meeting, not a brainstorm.
#3 Don’t criticize other people’s ideas
Of course you shouldn’t criticise ideas while they are being generated. Again, suggesting otherwise demonstrates a lack of understanding of Osborn’s true intent. Criticism requires judgement and judgement is anathema the continued generation of ideas. Again the secret is to spend just a short while brainstorming ideas and then wheel in criticism by all means but separate the two processes.
#4 Build on other people’s ideas
The notion of building on other people’s ideas actually does add value – it’s all about when you do it. It’s OK for one idea to spark another during the initial idea generating blast but we don’t need to discuss it at this point. If we’re going to make the most efficient use of the time available, we should only build on other people’s ideas when we have selected the handful of ideas that we have agreed to develop. That way, we don’t waste time building on ideas that didn’t make the cut.
#5 Every person and every idea has equal worth
The notion that that everyone might not contribute is misguided and insulting. Osborn never contended that every idea is of equal merit. While we’re generating ideas, we have no means of measuring merit because, once again, this requires judgement. Every person can however have ideas in a brainstorming session. The notion of limiting participants to only those that know best is the short route to madness. Those who know best tend to know only about the current paradigm and if it’s not working, no amount of rational analysis will change that. Having someone in a brainstorming session who doesn’t have expert knowledge may slow things down here and there and may frustrate. However, every now and again, one of the silly questions they pose will turn out to be anything but because they aren’t burdened by how things are supposed to be.
#6 Create a fun environment
Serious professionals – I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Is Chris Thomason suggesting that those of us who value the role that fun can play in the workplace in general, and in idea generation in particular, are not serious about what we do? I have long believed that I can be serious about business but not take myself too seriously. Besides, having fun relaxes people, reduces inhibition and makes it much more likely that we will have ideas and then share them as well. Furthermore, my experience over nearly 40 years (gosh, that makes me sound like I need to be retired whether I like it or not) is that people who have enjoyed generating ideas are much more likely to implement them and to stick with them when the going gets tough. So as far as fun is concerned, bring it on!
#7 Only one person talking at a time
Only one person talking at a time. No, no, no! Whoever said that was a rule for brainstorming? A brainstorm should be a free-for-all with lots of people talking at once, where as many ideas are lost in the melee as are collected or remembered on completion. But what if a good idea gets lost in the melee, I hear you asking. No problem – there’s loads more where that one came from! I agree that some of our best ideas come when we are on our own. Who said we had to have only one way of coming up with ideas. I’m greedy – I want both and many others besides.
#8 HiPPOs rule the waves
I completely understand the point about HiPPOs but we can hardly lay the blame for that at the door of brainstorming. HiPPOs are a problem regardless of the situation and whether their behaviour is conscious or unconscious, this is all about creating the right sort of environment for idea generation. It’s where an external facilitator can add their weight in gold to the proceedings by moderating the inputs from HiPPOs and encouraging input from others.
#9 Accepting the lowest common denominator
The idea that a brainstorming group promotes the lowest common denominator is preposterous and not borne out at all in my experience. I could see a group that is not committed to the challenge being addressed perhaps adopting this approach – and then the fault is with whoever set the thing up in the first place, who chose the participants, who explained the context and the importance. Again, this is not a feature of brainstorming per se. A committed group will pretty well always go for the best solution, however that is defined. And I’m all for giving a committed individual the chance to develop an idea they are passionate about. Once again, I want to be able to use both approaches.
#10 False anchoring
I have not come across this notion of false anchoring but I suspect this can only happen in something that is masquerading as a brainstorming session but in fact is something entirely different. There isn’t an ‘early on’ in a brainstorming session. There’s a short blast, sometimes mere minutes and certainly no more than 10, where ideas are being generated – remember that free-for-all that I mentioned earlier. Then there’s a period of sorting, assessing and selecting. It’s not uncommon for one particular idea to gain more support than another during this process but I would never describe this as false anchoring because we’re looking at all the ideas. If an idea with merit is not getting enough airtime, there’s pretty well always someone who will push it to the fore to get proper consideration. And if it gets missed, who’s to say that the one chosen isn’t the best anyway?
#11 Aggression or agreement
At last, something we can agree on – it’s important to get an external view in a brainstorming session. I alluded to this already when I talked about the hidden dangers of the current paradigm. However, the notion that a brainstorming session should avoid disagreement is again misguided. During that short idea generation blast near the beginning of what I might call a ‘real’ brainstorming session, disagreement doesn’t emerge because judgement is on hold and disagreement is the product of critical reasoning. Once we’ve generated the ideas, I welcome, in fact encourage, disagreement. Disagreement sharpens ideas as a whetstone sharpens a blade.
#12 Voting on ideas
Voting on ideas is again an aberration as far as Osborn’s original intent is concerned. I find that when it comes to selecting ideas, front-runners select themselves. When there is little passion for a selection of ideas and someone might be tempted to suggest voting, I suspect that this is more likely to be the result of the fact that no one is particularly committed to anything on the shortlist. Better by far to take a step back, redevelop one or two of the ideas or perhaps even start the process again. When the idea generation phase is so short, we can have a whole different shortlist in no time at all. Voting may work for democracies but it has no place in idea generation. Voting delivers winners and losers. I have often been accused of being criminally optimistic, and I’m proud of it – I want everyone to leave a ‘real’ brainstorming session feeling they are winners. Consensus might be a difficult mountain to climb but the view is great from the top!
#13 The illusion of productivity
I guess we’ve all been guilty at one time or another of self-deception – glad to get to the end of a meeting and then agree wholeheartedly with everyone else that it was time well spent when in fact we know that it’s been a complete waste of time. However, I would contend strongly that this is never the case when people have participated in a ‘real’ brainstorming session. Often, the converse is the case where participants are unaware, at the end of the session, of the real power and value of some of their solutions.
On the point about group hugs, I don’t remember ever doing one at the end of a brainstorming session. I can certainly remember barely-contained excitement, an eagerness to get on and implement something, a sense of anticipation about what we are about to do. I do remember being congratulated for a job well done and, indeed, for offering that same congratulation. However, I can say unequivocally that this has rarely been misplaced. I should also say that people were brainstorming well before the appearance of the ubiquitous sticky note. Writing on sticky notes actually slows that initial idea generation session down. When I’m facilitating a ‘real’ brainstorming, we often write nothing down at all, relying on people’s recall once we’re done to select the best ideas. Thankfully, I have therefore never had to deal with a sticky note hat.
Getting back to a point made at the start of the article, I wonder why we might be inclined to believe the findings of a study conducted almost 60 years ago and involving 48 people when we’re hell bent on retiring brainstorming because it’s over 60 years old. I’ve just turned 60 and I have no intention of hanging up my boots. Suggesting that we should retire brainstorming because of its age seems a little random to me. Should we retire Newton’s laws of Motion because they’re over 300 years old or Einstein’s Laws of Relativity because they’re approaching their centenary? I don’t think so.
To summarise, brainstorming isn’t failing business – it’s what some people have done to brainstorming that has failed anyone trying to generate ideas. Real brainstorming is still, without a doubt, the most powerful way of generating ideas. Add a little lateral thinking to the mix and you have a truly potent cocktail that can, and indeed does, change the world.
I’ll end where Chris Thomason started. In business, growth is not always king. This is the flawed thinking that precipitated the biggest economic meltdown in the history of the modern world. Growth is important however and ‘real’ brainstorming can play a powerful part in making it happen. Go on, have a go!