Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: Brainsteering

As the number of books about idea generation and innovation grows, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate the books and their messages.  Many, at first, paid homage to Alex Osborn and the other people who laid the foundations for business creativity and innovation.  Lately, it has become more popular to point out all of the shortcomings of the creative problem solving approach as described by Osborne, and especially lay all the problems of innovation at the feet of that favorite whipping boy, the ubiquitous brainstorm.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, anywhere, that a frequently used technique like brainstorming is often poorly applied or misused.  Even less surprising in today's environment is the discovery that some executives use brainstorming as a means to their own agendas, or that teams don't spend enough time preparing to generate ideas.  If these "revelations" are news to you, you've missed quite a bit of the commentary on innovation.

So, what are we to say about "Brainsteering", the new book from Kevin and Shawn Coyne?  The subtitle promises "A Better Approach To Breakthrough Ideas".  The Coyne brothers present Brainsteering - their title for their approach to idea generation - as if it were wholly new and completely different.  But the approach they describe is what most innovation practitioners would recognize as simply good idea generation methodology.

The Coyne brothers, like others who have written about idea generation recently, take great pains to identify all that's wrong with a traditional brainstorm.  They recognize that executives may have unstated agendas, and that different power levels in a brainstorm may result in pre-conceived ideas.  They point out that some people are more likely to dominate a discussion, while others for various reasons don't voice their ideas, or don't intend to share ideas at all.  Further, they point out that many idea generation sessions are poorly planned, and many participants don't understand the goals of the idea generation session they've been invited to.  So far this is fairly normal.

The Coyne brothers go further to state that much of Osborn's thinking and methods are incorrect. For example they point to research that shows that people are more creative individually than in a group.  The Coyne brothers spend some time "debunking" what they claim are the general brainstorming approaches advocated by the general innovation community, most of which pull from Osborn's methods.  However, the paper tiger they build would be unrecognizable to most innovation practitioners and many executives in Fortune 500 firms.  While some firms run poorly organized, poorly planned brainstorms that are driven at the whim of the executives or the most boisterous participants, those sessions represent a small minority of the brainstorming sessions that occur every day.  Further, there are strong rationales for group ideation, including the fact that most of the very creative people in an organization aren't always in tune with the needs and practical realities of bringing a product to market, and even if one person has a great idea, it takes many people to make an idea a reality as a product or service.  The brothers don't comment on these facts, and seem to miss entirely the growing emphasis on "open" innovation, which isn't mentioned as a way to generate and capture ideas.  In fact the book doesn't mention several of the emerging trends in innovation and creativity, open innovation being just the most important.  In fact the brothers don't define innovation, and don't adequately distinguish between concepts like "incremental" and "disruptive" ideas.  Further the brothers ignore other idea generation techniques, such as brainwriting, SCAMPER, analogies and so forth, that downplay the "dominance" issue.  It's as if experts in a field didn't pay proper homage to the existing craft, and try to repackage good practice as a new vision.

The "big idea" in Brainsteering is the idea that a session should be effectively scoped and framed with Right Questions (their capitalization, not mine).  These Right Questions are meant to ensure the team is focused on an important, relevant goal and the scope is well defined.  The brothers go on to demonstrate the use of logic diagrams to show how the scope and planning should be MECE (mutually exclusive completely exhaustive).  In other words, explore all the opportunities, especially the ones that aren't being explored by competition.

What's amazing is that the book presents this thinking as if it were new.  The brothers don't reference any leading thinkers from the innovation or creativity space, other than to debunk Osborn.  If they did any reading in the space, it doesn't show.  Individuals like Tim Hurson, who wrote Think Better, or Keith Sawyer who wrote Group Genius, have both covered the points the Coyne brothers make in great detail.  Of course Roger von Oech and other writers who focus on creativity have addressed many of these same issues.  A quick glance at Slideshare lists hundreds of PowerPoint presentations on good idea generation practice which will look very familiar to what the Coyne Brothers propose.  Here's a PowerPoint deck I placed on Slideshare in 2008, which points out the importance of pre-work, "framing" the idea generation session and excellent facilitation.  There's really very little that's new in this book.

The book is eminently readable and should appeal to a wide audience of innovation practitioners and people who are new to innovation.  The approach it lays out is a well-proven approach to help individuals or teams generate ideas and gain better ideas.  What is unfortunate is that the book doesn't acknowledge the fact that little in the book is new or different.  The book basically recaps good idea generation practices as if these practices didn't exist or weren't recognized, and completely fails to acknowledge much of the good work underway in existing innovation firms, and for that matter in many Fortune 500 firms.  I suppose that the reason the book ignores much of what is happening in the innovation and creativity space and claims to introduce a completely new and different method is that will distinguish the book from others on the innovation shelves. 

So overall a very readable book that claims to present some radically new thinking but in reality documents what most of us in the innovation and creativity space will recognize as best practices for running an idea generation session, which manages to completely ignore several rapidly growing trends in idea generation and management, the most important of which is "open innovation".  At the minimum it would have been great for the authors to acknowledge much of what is being done well, every day in many firms where idea generation is concerned, or to have tipped their hats to all of the great work and research that has gone before them, that their work directly or indirectly is based on. I think Think Better (by Hurson) offers a better model for facilitation and Group Genius (by Sawyer) is better at group creativity.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:58 AM


Blogger Roger von Oech said...

Good survey of the field, and appraisal of Brainsteering.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Rein Vosari said...

The sad reality is that the "Internet Generation" can not distinguish from their own "supposed ideas" and the work of others which predates their efforts by decades ! But when you are accustomed to downloading everything for free...why give credit to the originators...I mean who will ever know !

7:48 AM  
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Blogger better ck said...

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