Monday, April 18, 2016

Putting Brainstorming in its place

I find that I've become increasingly irritated with all of the narrow interpretations and self-serving definitions of what is, or isn't, innovation.  I'm happy to climb up on a soapbox again to talk about one of the most common scapegoats for innovation, the act of brainstorming.  No other activity is more miscast, more often blamed for failure, or more often denigrated.  Strange that the activity that should be the easiest, most natural activity in an innovation process is singled out as the most complex, difficult and dangerous.  But fact alone highlights how poorly understood the entire innovation process is.  So I rise today to neither praise nor bury brainstorming, but to place it in its proper context.

The Purpose of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a technique that allows individuals or small groups to generate ideas.  Brainstorming resides in an activity or phase that we call Idea Generation, which in turn sits in the larger context of innovation.  In an appropriately defined and designed innovation journey, idea generation is preceded by activities like trend spotting and scenario planning, to understand the unfolding future and emerging opportunities, and by customer insight generation, to gain new understanding about what customers want, need and are willing to pay for.  Conducting idea generation without these leading activities is like assembling an IKEA desk without the instructions or those crazy little Allen wrenches.  You can do it, it just won't be done well.

Brainstorming is a group technique to generate, socialize and evaluate ideas. It is not the only idea generation technique.  Any interested person can find other approaches to generate ideas.  Further, brainstorming is not absolutely required for an innovation activity.  You can easily and safely complete an innovation activity without ever conducting brainstorming.  In those cases you may find other means to generate ideas, or you may be using "open innovation" to undercover ideas, products or technologies that already exist.

So, why beat up so much on one tiny step in an innovation activity, that as you can see is not necessarily required, and where substitutes or alternatives exist?  Why so much hate for brainstorming?

Love it or Hate it

Brainstorming is universally mocked because most organizations don't plan for it effectively, don't conduct it honestly, and most attendees don't treat it as important.  Once everyone has agreed to avoid any investment in brainstorming, what else can it be than a failure?  Brainstorming, or any group idea generation technique, is only as viable and useful as the planning and commitment that go into it.  If we committed the same time and energy to designing a building that we do to planning a brainstorm, you'd never safely set foot in another building.

A brainstorming activity is simply a meeting with a specific purpose - to generate ideas. Everyone knows this.  But what they don't often know is:  what kinds of ideas will be acceptable?  How disruptive or incremental should the ideas be?  What research or background has been developed?  Are we repeating old ideas or trying to discover new ones?  Can we generate ideas that are really divergent, or represent other outcomes like business models?  Without preparation, everyone assumes that the least common denominator rules apply, and all ideas are incremental and boring.

Plus, many brainstorms aren't meant to generate ideas, they are meant to give cover to a direction or solution that was already decided.  The brainstorming activity is simply a thin veneer to provide some validation on a course of action that was previously decided.

Without preparation, without defining the potentially viable outcomes, without providing the research or background, and without demonstrating that there is no ulterior motive, how could any meeting succeed?

Individuals are better than groups

Now, someone reading this diatribe is going to say "what about all the research that shows that people are better individually than in groups at idea generation".  And yes, there is research to show that people are sometimes better at generating ideas individually than in groups.  All that says is 1) brainstorming can be an individual tool rather than a group tool and 2) in some instances groups are less functional than individuals.  Have you seen the 2016 presidential race?  Groups are often poor decision makers where information is less than perfect.

But here's the rub:  in large organizations it's almost impossible for one person with a good idea to get anything done.  Large organizations require the ability to create and disseminate ideas, and get people to back the idea.  Thus, all innovation is a group dynamic in a large organization, and group brainstorms serve other purposes besides generating ideas.  They also serve to socialize ideas, validate and vet ideas and even evaluate ideas in a group setting, where more people mean more perspectives - assuming of course that you've got a heterogeneous team, where different perspectives are valued.  This is of course another problem with innovation generally, and brainstorming or group activities specifically:  most teams are far too homogeneous in their formation, thinking and perspectives. 

Fit for purpose

Ideally, the best situation you can find yourself in is when the tools you use are fit for the purpose you have.  For example, a pocket knife can help you chop down a small tree, but how much better is an axe, or even a chain saw to do the same job?  Likewise, if we think carefully about what our actual goals are, brainstorming and other idea generation techniques are actually very well fit for larger purposes.

If your purpose is simply to generate a lot of ideas, use a random number generator.  If your goal is to socialize needs, generate solutions, socialize and build on those solution, validate and evaluate those solutions and leave a meeting with more buy-in than was possible beforehand, brainstorming might be the best fit for purpose. 

What many corporate types want out of a brainstorm is simply words on paper, to be interpreted in whatever way they eventually want to interpret the "ideas".  Participation is welcome but not necessarily encouraged, especially ideas or submissions that deviate from the expected path.   These meetings don't emphasize socialization or buy-in, because the sponsors aren't looking for your support.  They have an idea and intend to pursue it, regardless of the outcomes.  And most savvy corporate types can recognize when the fix is in and play along, hoping one day that the same people will show up to their idea generation activities and play the same roles. 

What outcomes do you expect

A brainstorm, like any other tool, can be effectively used or used in a disastrous way.  Those who would blame the tool neglect the old aphorism that states that only a poor craftsman blames his or her tools for a poor outcome.  If you aren't getting the results you hoped for, check your assumptions.  Either you've defined the activity too narrowly (or not at all), you've failed to provide the research that will lead to understanding of the problem or challenge, your teams are too homogeneous or you are using brainstorming to validate an outcome you've already decided on, rather than discovering something new. 

Done well, with good preparation, good advanced reading and scoping, the right people with the right commitments and attitudes and effective leadership, good brainstorming is dynamic and creates ideas that take the team to new places.  If you read the buildup of that sentence you'll realize that all the predicates (good prep, good pre-reads, the right people with the right commitment) are prerequisites for any new activity.  In other words there's an investment required to do brainstorming, and it should be placed in its proper context - just after all the discovery necessary to find emerging needs and validate that customers have those needs, and just before building out prototypes and testing them in the market.  Again, brainstorming is a connected activity, with predicates and follow on activities closely linked, not a discrete, one-time, stand alone activity.

So, the next time your "brainstorming" fails to deliver, or you are dissatisfied with the outcomes, instead of searching for validating reasons that describe why brainstorming is so inept, first consider the role brainstorming plays in your innovation activity, and whether or not it is fit for your purpose.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:42 AM


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