Brainstorming Lives On

Stephen DeAngelis

April 22, 2011

In a previous post, I noted that many creativity gurus believe that anybody can become more creative if they are taught the right techniques. Like them I believe that normally uninspired people can help generate a range of solutions to challenges once they view those challenges from new perspectives. That is what the best creativity techniques do — they help people see things differently. One technique that continues to receive support is brainstorming. Brainstorming is normally considered a group creativity technique. Its designed purpose is to generate a significant number of ideas for solving a problem in a short amount of time. According to Wikipedia, the method was first popularized in 1953 “by Alex Faickney Osborn in a book called Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming.” [“Brainstorming“] As it turns out, Osborn was wrong. Brainstorming was first proven not to work in 1958, “when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team’s creative output.” That research demonstrated that “the same number of people [could] generate more and better ideas separately than together.” [“Forget Brainstorming,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Newsweek, 12 July 2010]. Bronson and Merryman continue:

“According to University of Oklahoma professor Michael Mumford, half of the commonly used techniques intended to spur creativity don’t work, or even have a negative impact. As for most commercially available creativity training, Mumford doesn’t mince words: it’s ‘garbage.’ Whether for adults or kids, the worst of these programs focus solely on imagination exercises, expression of feelings, or imagery. They pander to an easy, unchallenging notion that all you have to do is let your natural creativity out of its shell.”

The Wikipedia article confirms what Bronson and Merryman report about the traditional brainstorming technique. It goes on to reveal:

“Although brainstorming has become a popular group technique, when applied in a traditional group setting, researchers have not found evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either quantity or quality of ideas generated. Because of such problems as distraction, social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking, conventional brainstorming groups are little more effective than other types of groups, and they are actually less effective than individuals working independently.”

In a previous post, I noted several of the reasons mentioned above for the lack of brainstorming effectiveness. First, of course, is fear. People fear that others will think their ideas are stupid so they don’t bring them up. A second impediment to brainstorming is even more significant. People have difficulty holding on to more than one thought. In most group settings, they have to hold on to a thought while waiting for their turn to bring it to the attention of the group. Only after they have let that thought go are they free to come up with other ideas. As a result, many people just ignore what’s happening the in the group and write down all of their ideas so they don’t forget them before rejoining the discussion. In other words, they turn group brainstorming into individual brainstorming. Despite the fact that brainstorming fails to live up to its billing, the term “brainstorm” has assumed a life of its own. It now represents the generation of ideas regardless of the setting or technique used. The imagery is great because it conjures up activity in the brain. According to the Wikipedia article, there are reasons that the technique has survived and continues to be used. It explains:

“Although traditional brainstorming does not increase the productivity of groups (as measured by the number of ideas generated), it may still provide benefits, such as boosting morale, enhancing work enjoyment, and improving team work.”

The article goes on to note that there have been “numerous attempts … made to improve brainstorming or use more effective variations of the basic technique. … From these attempts to improve brainstorming, electronic brainstorming stands out. The positive effects of electronic brainstorming become more pronounced with group size.” In previous posts that touched on this subject, I noted that two of my colleagues had extensive experience with electronic brainstorming. In that post, I wrote:

“There are systems that permit individual brainstorming and group dynamics to be used together. When my colleagues Tom Barnett and Bradd Hayes were professors at the Naval War College, they worked in a department that used groupware to capture ideas and foster discussion. Groupware permits participants to brainstorm individually (writing down ideas as quickly as they are conceived) and permits them to see others’ ideas, which, in turn, can stimulate new thoughts as well. Groupware is not the end all and be all of creative thinking, but it has its place and has proved extremely useful when used to its full potential. One big caveat is that groupware, and the supporting IT equipment it requires, is not cheap and, therefore, not often available to most groups.”

Kevin P. and Shawn T. Coyne, cofounders and managing directors of the Coyne Partnership, a boutique strategy consulting firm, agree that “most attempts at brainstorming are doomed.” But they believe the technique can still prove useful, if you “start by asking better questions.” [“Seven steps to better brainstorming,” McKinsey Quarterly, March 2011] They explain:

“Traditional brainstorming is fast, furious, and ultimately shallow. By scrapping these traditional techniques for a more focused, question-based approach, senior managers can consistently coax better ideas from their teams.”

As the title of the Coynes’ article states, they offer seven steps that can help a company develop a question-based approach. They continue:

“All senior managers, at some point, experience the pain of pursuing new ideas by way of traditional brainstorming sessions—still the most common method of using groups to generate ideas at companies around the world. The scene is familiar: a group of people, often chosen largely for political reasons, begins by listening passively as a moderator (often an outsider who knows little about your business) urges you to ‘Get creative!’ and ‘Think outside the box!’ and cheerfully reminds you that ‘There are no bad ideas!’ The result? Some attendees remain stone-faced throughout the day, others contribute sporadically, and a few loudly dominate the session with their pet ideas. Ideas pop up randomly—some intriguing, many preposterous—but because the session has no structure, little momentum builds around any of them. At session’s end, the group trundles off with a hazy idea of what, if anything, will happen next. ‘Now we can get back to real work,’ some whisper.”

Admit it, they did a good job describing the traditional brainstorming session. Having observed over 200 projects at more than 150 companies, the Coynes assure us, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” The remainder of their article describes steps they’ve used in a “practical approach that captures the energy typically wasted in a traditional brainstorming session and steers it in a more productive direction. The trick is to leverage the way people actually think and work in creative problem-solving situations.” They call their approach “brainsteering”; others have called similar approaches directed brainstorming. Although they warn that “it requires more preparation than traditional brainstorming, the results are worthwhile: better ideas in business situations as diverse as inventing new products and services, attracting new customers, designing more efficient business processes, or reducing costs, among others.” They turn next to the first step:

1. Know your organization’s decision-making criteria — One reason good ideas hatched in corporate brainstorming sessions often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider. ‘Think outside the box!’ is an unhelpful exhortation if external circumstances or company policies create boxes that the organization truly must live within. Managers hoping to spark creative thinking in their teams should therefore start by understanding (and in some cases shaping) the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about the resulting ideas. … A bank we know wasted a full day’s worth of brainstorming because the session’s best ideas all required changing IT systems. Yet senior management—unbeknownst to the workshop planners—had recently ‘locked down’ the IT agenda for the next 18 months.’ … At a different, smarter bank, workshop planners collaborated with senior managers on a highly specific (and therefore highly valuable) definition tailored to meet immediate needs. Good ideas would require no more than $5,000 per branch in investment and would generate incremental profits quickly. Further, while three categories of ideas—new products, new sales approaches, and pricing changes—were welcome, senior management would balk at ideas that required new regulatory approvals. The result was a far more productive session delivering exactly what the company wanted: a fistful of ideas, in all three target categories, that were practical, affordable, and profitable within one fiscal year.”

While that may sound like common sense, we all known that good sense is not as common as people would like to believe. I agree with the Coynes that having a clear objective is critical. I also agree that asking specific questions will lead to better solutions; which segues to the second step.

2. Ask the right questions — Decades of academic research shows that traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques (‘Go for quantity—the greater the number of ideas, the greater the likelihood of winners!’) are inferior to approaches that provide more structure. The best way we’ve found to provide it is to use questions as the platform for idea generation. In practice, this means building your workshop around a series of ‘right questions’ that your team will explore in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions. … The trick is to identify questions with two characteristics. First, they should force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. … The second characteristic of a right question is that it limits the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes. It’s easier to show such questions in practice than to describe them in theory. … A health insurance provider looking to cut costs might ask, ‘What complexity do we plan for daily that, if eliminated, would change the way we operate?’ and ‘In which areas is the efficiency of a given department “trapped” by outdated restrictions placed on it by company policies?'”

The Coynes recommend beginning brainstorming sessions “with 15 to 20 such questions” in your pocket. They stress, and I agree, that you should thoughtfully select and carefully word those questions. For example, one of the sample questions they provide for a consumer electronics company workshop is: “Who uses our product in ways we never expected?” An important follow-on question would be: “How do they use our product in unexpected ways?” You are likely to have a much richer conversation based on the second question than the first — which could simply result in a list of customers. The next important thing you need to do is select the right people. The Coynes write:

3. Choose the right people — The rule here is simple: pick people who can answer the questions you’re asking. As obvious as this sounds, it’s not what happens in many traditional brainstorming sessions, where participants are often chosen with less regard for their specific knowledge than for their prominence on the org chart. Instead, choose participants with firsthand, ‘in the trenches’ knowledge.”

On this point, the Coynes and I might have a slightly different viewpoint. Although I agree that you need some participants who work in the trenches, you should also consider including some decision-makers since ideas that don’t receive executive support are dead. In addition, don’t hesitate to bring in outsiders who know nothing about the company’s day-to-day operations. The Coynes themselves noted the importance of changing perspectives if you want different answers. Sometimes it takes a smart outsider to help give you that perspective. The next step recommended by the Coynes is to divide large groups into small ones. They write:

4. Divide and conquer — To ensure fruitful discussions, … don’t have your participants hold one continuous, rambling discussion among the entire group for several hours. Instead, have them conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups of three to five people—no fewer, no more. Each subgroup should focus on a single question for a full 30 minutes. Why three to five people? The social norm in groups of this size is to speak up, whereas the norm in a larger group is to stay quiet.”

One of the interesting recommendations the Coynes make about deciding who should be in various groups is that “it’s important to isolate ‘idea crushers’ in their own subgroup.” This suggests, of course, that you have personal knowledge about each participant. In the “idea crushers” category, the Coynes place “bosses, ‘big mouths,’ and subject matter experts.” Here’s their thinking:

“The boss’s presence, which often makes people hesitant to express unproven ideas, is particularly damaging if participants span multiple organizational levels. (‘Speak up in front of my boss’s boss? No, thanks!’) Big mouths take up air time, intimidate the less confident, and give everyone else an excuse to be lazy. Subject matter experts can squelch new ideas because everyone defers to their presumed superior wisdom, even if they are biased or have incomplete knowledge of the issue at hand.”

Be careful not to stereotype people. Not all bosses, talkers, and experts are idea crushers. The Coynes, however, believe in erring on the safe side because whether this group contains real idea crushers or not, they “will still be productive … [because] they won’t stop each other from speaking up.” They recommend that each small group discuss no more than five questions in the time allotted. Their next recommendation involves controlling expectations. They continue:

5. On your mark, get set, go! — After your participants arrive, but before the division into subgroups, orient them so that your expectations about what they will—and won’t—accomplish are clear. Remember, your team is accustomed to traditional brainstorming, where the flow of ideas is fast, furious, and ultimately shallow. … Tell participants that if anyone thinks of a ‘silver bullet’ solution that’s outside the scope of discussion, they should write it down and share it later. … The going can feel slow at first, so reassure participants that by the end of the day, after all the subgroups have met several times, there will be no shortage of good ideas. … One last warning: no matter how clever your participants, no matter how insightful your questions, the first five minutes of any subgroup’s brainsteering session may feel like typical brainstorming as people test their pet ideas or rattle off superficial new ones. But participants should persevere. Better thinking soon emerges as the subgroups try to improve shallow ideas while sticking to the assigned questions.”

One way to keep subgroups on task is to assign a group spokesperson (i.e., an individual who is going to report on the subgroup’s discussion to the rest of the participants). The “spokesperson” will feel compelled to keep others on track without the others feeling that he or she was somehow placed in charge of the group. All participants should feel that their opinions are as important as any other individual’s. The next recommendation talks about how to end discussions after you’ve stimulated them all day long.

6. Wrap it up — By day’s end, a typical subgroup has produced perhaps 15 interesting ideas for further exploration. You’ve been running multiple subgroups simultaneously, so your 20-person team has collectively generated up to 60 ideas. What now? One thing not to do is have the full group choose the best ideas from the pile, as is common in traditional brainstorming. In our experience, your attendees won’t always have an executive-level understanding of the criteria and considerations that must go into prioritizing ideas for actual investment. The experience of picking winners can also be demotivating, particularly if the real decision makers overrule the group’s favorite choices later. Instead, have each subgroup privately narrow its own list of ideas to a top few and then share all the leading ideas with the full group to motivate and inspire participants.”

No one likes believing they have wasted their time, so the Coynes recommend that before dismissing the group you “describe to them exactly what steps will be taken to choose the winning ideas and how they will learn about the final decisions.” Part of ensuring that participants feel like their efforts were worthwhile is getting back to them with results — which is the Coynes’ final step.

7. Follow up quickly — Decisions and other follow-up activities should be quick and thorough. Of course, we’re not suggesting that uninformed or insufficiently researched conclusions should be reached about ideas dreamed up only hours earlier. But the odds that concrete action will result from an idea generation exercise tend to decline quickly as time passes and momentum fades.”

The Coynes note that feedback is critical “even when an idea was rejected.” They explain that “by respectfully explaining why certain ideas were rejected, you can help team members produce better ideas next time. In our experience, they will participate next time, often more eagerly than ever.” Directed brainstorming is like the “deep dive” process that so-called “idea factories” use to help clients come up with solutions to challenges. The Coynes offer a lot of good suggestions that, if followed, will produce better results than traditional brainstorming methods.