Brainstorming is Stupid


What keeps CEOs up at night? According to a recent Conference Board survey, one of the top challenges facing organizations today is innovation.

Despite the popular misconception, innovation is not about new products, processes, services, or business models. It is about adaptability and repeatability. It is about continually staying ahead of the competition.

"Having positive constraints helps to focus your thinking, and increases the relevance of solutions."

In many organizations, the answer to the innovation challenge involves brainstorming. You know the drill. You get a flip chart, markers, and maybe some Post-It notes. Then you sequester a group of people in a room and generate ideas.

While widely practiced, there’s one major problem with this form of brainstorming. It doesn’t work!

Why? Here are four common pitfalls to brainstorming and some potential remedies:

1. Poorly Defined Challenge

One of the biggest pitfalls with traditional brainstorming is harboring the misguided beliefs that “there is no such thing as a bad idea” and that everyone should “think outside the box”.

Organizations do not need more ideas, opinions and suggestions! In fact, they are drowning in them. What they need are implementable solutions that address real-world opportunities.

Therefore, instead of setting your team free to haphazardly generate ideas, first get them focused. Provide constraints that limit their thinking to areas that will have the greatest potential impact.

In other words, “don’t think outside the box, find a better box.”

The issue isn’t that people need to get outside of the metaphorical box. The problem is they are typically in the wrong box to begin with.

If you ask the wrong question, you will of course get the wrong answer. While this is logical, most brainstorming sessions do a poor job of thinking through the challenge that will make the biggest different. To create maximum impact, invest a bulk of time identifying the right question. For example, brainstorming ways to improve productivity will most likely yield hundreds of useless ideas. Instead of trying to address an abstract problem like productivity, reframe the problem to “make jobs easier.” Restated this way, it is slightly more focused. Of course, it would be even better to first identify where jobs are overly complex. By targeting more specific jobs or activities, you have an even better chance of honing in on the real value creator.

Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and 1 minute finding solutions.” From my experience, most companies spend 60 minutes brainstorming issues that are not important.

Having positive constraints helps to focus your thinking, increases the relevance of solutions and paradoxically, enhances the level of creative thinking.

2. Lack of Diversity

Innovation only occurs when you have a wide range of perspectives.  However, most brainstorming sessions involve the same people at each and every meeting. Moreover, those in attendance are typically only the individuals who are closest to the issues being addressed. This can negatively impact their ability to be objective and generate a new point of view.

To combat this, identify and engage others that have a tangential perspective - people from different departments, business units, and levels within the organization. Consider inviting people from outside your company who possess an entirely different area of expertise.

Do not limit your attendee list to creative people alone. You want analytical people working alongside great planners. The data-driven individuals will help ensure you are focused on the opportunities with the greatest potential value, while planners will help predict any potential implementation challenges.

3. Group Think and Single Threading

Most brainstorming sessions are set up to have a leader at the front and only one person speaking at a time.

A drawback to this methodology is that once the first person throws out a solution, it taints the mindset of everyone else in the room. This causes convergence too early in the process.

There is compelling scientific evidence that people can be subconsciously influenced to alter their opinions based on what a crowd believes. In other words, it is easier to fit in than to take a strong stand for your own beliefs.  Thinking independently is harder than we anticipate.

Another issue with this “single threading” strategy is that it slows down the process and leads to “social loafing.” When groups work together, there is a tendency for individuals to put forth less effort. They assume that someone else will pick up the slack.

One way to combat these issues is to start by having everyone jot down his or her individual responses first before sharing with the larger group. This will ensure that each person has an equal say and contribution. Or, if appropriate, use collaborative software that allows for the gathering of solutions in parallel.

One strategy leaders often use involves breaking everyone into smaller groups. Unfortunately this leads to a lack of cross-pollination. To address this issue, I developed a technique modeled after the “Speaker’s Corner” in London’s Hyde Park. With this method, simultaneous conversations take place with participants moving freely from topic to topic as desired.

4. Brainstorming is an Event

Brainstorming is typically viewed as a single, standalone event. Therefore, too often it is disconnected from the “reality” of the business and does not convert ideas into results.

Instead, if you think of brainstorming as the start of a process (or part of an already established process), you have a better chance of creating value. When innovation is a process, it is repeatable and predictable rather than ad hoc.

To do this, before the meeting, get clear on what you will do after  the brainstorming session. Obtain buy-in early on from the people who will make change happen.

"Obtain buy-in early on from the people who will make change happen."

In fact, do not waste time brainstorming unless you already have an owner, sponsors, funding, and resources allocated prior to stepping into the room. Without these, your efforts will most likely fail.

Lastly, be sure that the challenge you are working on (see point #1 above) has clear and measurable evaluation criteria before  generating solutions. This helps you look at potential solutions objectively.

5. Brainstorming Does Not Need to Be Stupid

Typically the only result of a brainstorming session is a waste of flip chart paper, Post It Notes, and time. But this does not need to be the case. When done properly, brainstorming can be a great way for generating solutions to important business challenges by tapping into the collective brilliance of the people involved.

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