Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The nine lives of brainstorming

I read yesterday, in one of the leading papers in our country, that brainstorming is useless and doesn't work.  This reporting announces, yet again, what everyone who stands on the outside of innovation circles has assumed is true - brainstorming, idea generation and the rest of the work that innovators do is hocus-pocus.  Regardless of over 60 years of investment in Creative Problem Solving, brainstorming doesn't work.

This eulogy is the second I've read from leading business writers.  Just a few years ago Bruce Nussbaum at Business Week wrote a long article entitled Brainstorming is dead.  I wrote a rebuttal to that statement which you can find here.  And, like the Pavlovian dog responding to the bell, I rise yet again to wonder - what in the world are these people talking about?

I come, to paraphrase the play, not to bury brainstorming but to praise it.

In the latest article to bury brainstorming, Jena McGregor at the Washington Post states that brainstorming doesn't work.  Hmm, that would be news to my clients who have just filed two patents after a round of brainstorming just a few months ago.  Or another client who introduced a radical new product that was the direct result of a brainstorming effort from earlier in the year.  Who knew?  We were crediting a tool that produced a result that experts have demonstrated doesn't work.  Or, perhaps, were the experiments and research that led to the conclusion somewhat flawed?

McGregor points in her article to research conducted by professors at Texas A&M, in which a similar problem is presented to a group, and to a range of people working on their own.  The research demonstrates that people working on their own will come up with more ideas, and sometimes more radical or "better" ideas than the group will.  The professors stipulate that one reason is "Cognitive Fixation", which means that people become fixed on ideas, especially ones suggested by others, and neglect to pursue other pathways.  I think this argument, on its face, is mostly true.

What this research fails to mention is that no good idea facilitation company would pursue idea generation in this way.  Just as I don't eat at restaurants where the cooks all prepare meals independently with no central plan or menu, good innovators understand that to generate great ideas, there's far more involved than simply "dumping people in a room together" to paraphrase the article.  Is idea generation abused - often used to achieve a predefined goal or to steer teams in a particular direction?  Yes.  But do we blame the cars for the automobile accidents?

The problem with this analysis is that while it is accurate, it portrays events that happen for a reason, and does not fully investigate all of the "best practices" that good innovators follow.  To establish a successful brainstorming or idea generation session goes far beyond dumping people into a room.  The steps a good innovator follows include:
  • Excellent problem or opportunity definition - to scope the opportunity and ensure everyone is focused on an important, relevant problem or opportunity
  • A clear definition of outcome - should the ideas be disruptive or incremental?  Should they result in physical products, services, new marketing material or some other outcome?
  • Selecting a heterogeneous group - the broader the perspectives and the wider the experiences the better
  • Selecting a team size appropriate to the outcomes - small teams do a better job of generating disruptive ideas.  The more people that participate, the more likely the result reverts to the norm of the group.
  • Preparation - telling people what the problem is (see above) and giving them the background information necessary to participate effectively.  In this way you don't spend valuable time trying to get everyone "on board" during ideation
  • Removing the "anchors" - brainstorming and idea generation is serious work, and seriously different from what people do day to day.  Just as I can't rush into surgery without preparation, most people can't quickly release all the constraints and barriers imposed by their day to day jobs to think more expansively.  Good facilitators know how to break the ice and help people think expansively
  • Excellent facilitation - good ideation comes about from preparation and excellent facilitation.  If you want excellent results in any effort you find people who are expert in their field.  If your ideation sessions are led by people who aren't experts, or who have agendas, or who can't help the group think more broadly, then what did you expect?  Do you use the Brain surgery at Home kits as well?
So, I think this article and others like it have successfully skewered the strawman of ineffective, unplanned and unfacilitated brainstorming.  We can now rest assured that yes, poorly planned, poorly led and poorly executed brainstorming doesn't work.  Just like poorly led firms with little strategy are often unsuccessful.

It's not as though there aren't documented "best practices" for idea generation, or that there are thousands of practitioners who do this work effectively.  Too bad you can't find training on idea facilitation or read books (like, oh, Think Better by Tim Hurson) to understand how to do this.  Or Group Genius by Keith Sawyer.  If only there was a documented canon of material or a knowledge base about how to do this effectively. If it's academic rigor you need, you could check out Sawyer, identified above, or perhaps Clayton Christensen or Teresa Amabile at Harvard. 

On the other hand, there are literally thousands of examples of successful brainstorming every day.  Why isn't that mentioned in this article, or when people complain about the lack of success in idea generation?  Here's an offer - if you believe brainstorming or idea generation doesn't work, contact me.  If you'll agree to work within the strategy I've identified above, I'll guarantee a successful result - you'll see a dramatic difference in your idea generation.

Fortunately, innovation and idea generation are feline - they are mysterious and have more than one life.  Having been declared dead by Nussbaum and declared useless by McGregor, idea generation still remains a viable and valuable function in an innovation program.  Still seven more lives to go yet.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:02 AM


Blogger Dennis Franklin said...

So true. I myself am a scientist, or was before getting into business and I am regularly appalled at how business literature misrepresents good research, and how business research is not at all rigorous.

Your points are well made. I have recently been involved in a big open innovation exercise with AngloGold Ashanti www.aga-tic.com and the initial brainstorming sessions were excellent. We. came up with some crazy ideas. The path to value is the big list of ideas, realizing the value is in the qualification of those ideas.

Good stuff mate.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Gregg Fraley said...

I wish I'd read your lovely piece before writing mine. These off-the-cuff pieces burying brainstorming are so surface level...

Here's my take:

12:20 PM  
Blogger tomislav buljubasic said...

I totally agree with your reaction. I've done more then 40 brainstorming workshops and this was always the best source of new ideas.
Also, this is a great way to foster innovation culture with direct contact with innovators, which is not done when using idea mgmt software.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Adam Thomas said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:48 AM  
Blogger Kevin McFarthing said...

Spot on, Jeffrey. It's like Warren Buffett's quote - "Well, it may be all right in practice but it'll never work in theory".

10:41 AM  
Blogger Kasturi Shinde said...

Soooooo true !!!
I am a business Design student of Welingkar Institute of Management and we develop buiness ideas over here in a very systematic format.Brainstorming sessions are the most important part of the process. We spend hours and days fighting,arguing, agreeing, building up and coming up with innovative ideas. So I can totally totally relate with whatetver you have said :)

8:12 PM  
Blogger Austin kahn said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

What do you mean brainstorming doesn't work? I do think that with planning always comes a stage of brainstorming. Charitable Giving

7:26 AM  

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