Thursday, December 03, 2009

Now, brainstorming is dead

Last year in an effort to be provocative, Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek proclaimed that innovation was "dead".  That elicited the usual outcry and defense of innovation, from yours truly and others.  Bruce wasn't really trying to argue that innovation was dead.  I believe he was trying to help us gain perspective on what innovation is - and what it isn't.

Lately I've been reading a number of articles and blog posts that state that brainstorming is, well, dead.  I guess innovators should probably have a deeper vocabulary or at least access to a thesaurus.  When someone, anyone, claims a technique or school of thought is "dead", then we should begin by asking for the rationale or proof.  Does the individual making the claim have insight the rest of us don't have?  Does the individual have a vested interest in the death of the technique or tool?  Is it possible that the tool isn't really dead, just poorly applied?

Let's evaluate the vital signs of brainstorming and determine whether there is life left in the corpse.

Let's first stipulate that brainstorming is probably the most popular and most commonly used idea generation technique in a group.  Not to say that all brainstorms are effective, but that many people have a general understanding about the technique and its usefulness for the purpose.

If brainstorming were indeed dead as a technique, would innovation firms continue to use it?  Would firms that offer innovation continue to train clients on the technique?  Clearly, effective brainstorming hasn't passed its prime, since I personally have seen it used successfully in the last few weeks.  I suspect others of you have as well.

What, then, drives the notion among some of the innovation cognoscenti that brainstorming is "dead".  Well, there is an interest in introducing new, more exotic tools.  Tools like SIT, TRIZ, SCAMPER and a host of other new techniques promise improved idea generation.  In fact some of these techniques work well, and some can be used to drive discussion within a brainstorming exercise.  While these tools and techniques are useful, they complement, not replace, brainstorming.

Could it be that many organizations aren't using brainstorming successfully?  There are a number of factors and attributes of a successful brainstorming session.  The difference between a good brainstorming session and a poor one is very similar to the differences between a good presentation and a poor presentation:  a clear agenda, well defined goals, a tight scope, defined outcomes and clear roles.  If these factors don't exist, then a brainstorm won't work well, but then again neither will any other idea generation technique.

When you're the leader, every other claimant to the throne is seeking to knock you off.  While brainstorming is not without its faults, none of the other idea generation techniques are complete replacements nor are they without their biases and faults.

Finally, what we all need to realize is that brainstorming is simply a technique or tool to generate ideas that has its place in a larger innovation process.  For me to say that brainstorming is dead is akin to saying that since the crescent wrench is missing from the toolbox, we can't fix the sink.  Brainstorming is a tool that provides solutions in a larger framework, and can in some instances be replaced with other tools that produce similar outcomes in line with our process expectations.  However, there's no compelling reason to throw the brainstorm technique out with the bathwater.  More probably, there's a need to train more people to use the tool more effectively, more often.

Paraphrasing Faulkner, brainstorming isn't dead, it's not even passed.  There's life in the corpse, and by using the tools and techniques correctly and in the right settings, it has tremendous value.  Be careful when anyone tells you that a technique as ubiquitous as brainstorming is somehow dead.  They've placed far too much emphasis on a tool, and far too little emphasis on the overall innovation process.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:55 AM

7 Comments:

Blogger Peter J MELLALIEU said...

Most cogently argued and expressed with lucidity.

Your posting is an exemplary 'persuasive essay' is support of locating correctly ideation tehniques within the broader framework of ideation techniques, knowledge management, and innovation strategy.

Aside: If you were one of my CraC! students, I'd give you an A/A-.

You'd get an A+ if you cited some scholarly references!

Here's a good start:

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Handbook of creativity. Cambridge University Press.

Dr Crac!rof

1:33 PM  
Blogger Mario Vellandi said...

But of course!
Bruce just says these things to get readers in by stirring ire and exploiting the subjective nature of general nominalizations and progressive verbs.
Thanks anyway for standing up to the nonsense and telling it like it is.

That brainstorming, ideation, and group feedback sessions are happening at all is generally great and healthy (for any organizational department or goal). Tools and certain techniques may be helpful, but ultimately it's the process of defining an agenda, setting some goals, and effectively achieving some timeline-based deliverables, whatever form they take and direction they may lead us. It's a collective progressive attitude also that matters.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

As you say, brainstorming is just a part of a larger landscape of tools and techniques that groups use to both generate ideas and create insight. It is possible that some methods are happening less in certain environments.

It might be more interesting to spend time and energy 'brainstorming' all the variations and types of idea generation methods and the different environments and contexts where idea generation happens (both formally and informally). We would then have a pretty realistic and valuable picture of the landscape and could have another tool in our toolkit. ;-)

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Graham Horton said...

a lot depends on what you mean by "brainstorming". the word is used by different people to mean a variety of things.

you might mean the technique "classical brainstorming", but you might also be referring generically to all techniques which use spoken input rather than written input. (the latter are then referred to as "brainwriting" methods.)

if you mean the classical brainstorming technique, then i am certainly one of those who claim that brainstorming is too weak to be of much use. (i don't think i have ever written that brainstorming is "dead", though!)

a blog comment is not really the right place to go into the all the definitions and arguments, but i would be happy to engage in that discussion.


Graham

6:01 AM  
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