Friday, March 01, 2013

Brainstorming: Innovation's punching bag

Join me please in parsing everything that is wrong with the article title "Why innovation by brainstorming doesn't work".  In this article, which seems to suggest that the only activity necessary for innovation is brainstorming, brainstorming comes in for a kicking yet again.  What?  Don't we have an article every three months telling us that brainstorming doesn't work?  Can't we find a new punching bag? 

I don't hold a particular brief for or against brainstorming.  But we should consider it in its context.  Brainstorming is a tool for generating ideas.  You can choose to like and enjoy brainstorming, or you can choose to generate ideas using hundreds of other creativity and idea generation tools.  But that's all SCAMPER or brainwriting or mind mapping or any of hundreds of other potential aids are - just tools.  And tools used with insufficient preparation or for the wrong application or by an inexperienced user are often blamed for the outcomes.

Brainstorming has a bad reputation, there's no doubt about it.  That's because brainstorming is typically a poorly administered meeting with little preparation, the wrong participants with the wrong scope, and often one or more individuals who have a personal agenda.  ANY meeting that lacks good preparation, a consistent scope and goal and the right people is doomed for failure.  Why pick on brainstorming as if it is the only instance of poor leadership, poor planning and the misuse of tools or techniques?  As to the "studies" that demonstrate that individuals can generate more or better ideas by themselves, I'm open to the theory, but I know that teams move ideas through companies, not individuals.  It may be the case that we would all generate "better" ideas, if we could establish a quantitative gauge for betterness, if we all generated ideas by ourselves.  But that activity would be pointless, because just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a group to move a nascent idea from concept to product or service.

Further, I've worked with many teams using brainstorming or other idea generation techniques and have been exceptionally happy with the results.  Sometimes it's the facilitation skills, sometimes its the preparation, sometimes its the mix of people in the room, sometimes its the personal agendas.  Many factors can derail any idea generation, and only the right combinations make them successful.  That's why good idea generation is so difficult.  It's easy to skip important factors and easy to derail the activity, and hard to do it well without all factors working together.

Another concept in the article, and this is probably not the fault of the author but of the editor, is to conflate brainstorming as if it is the only activity in innovation.  We at OVO promote, and many others do as well, an innovation process made up of picking and using the right tools, at the right time, in the right context.  Brainstorming may be a step in the innovation process, or not, but it is only a single step.  Until you've got context (a clear opportunity statement or problem statement), knowledge and foresight (trends, scenarios and customer insight) you don't have an adequate context or scope for innovation, and every idea, regardless of how you choose to generate them, is based on opinion, not needs. 

So, can we give brainstorming a rest?  It's been the favorite punching bag for far too long.  Let's assert that many brainstorms aren't successful, but as I've written before, that's not a failure of the tools, but of the users.  And if brainstorming doesn't work for you, use any other creativity or idea generation technique that does - there are plenty.  Just realize that idea generation is simply one step in an innovation process, and without good context and the ability to manage and evaluate ideas successfully, the best idea generation techniques on the planet are useless.

Good innovation relies on a complex system of knowledge, insights, tools and people.  Blaming innovation failure on brainstorming is pointing the finger of blame at a tool that is just one small portion of the process, when other equally or perhaps better tools exist.  First, check your premises.  Have we done a good job preparing the people?  Do we have the right people for the job?  Do they understand the needs and scope of the activity?  As a friend used to say, good craftsmen never blame the tools for their problems.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:20 AM


Blogger Andrew (Drew) Marshall said...

As you note Jeffrey, brainstorming is a tool and like all tools it can be used for good or ill. Due consideration must be made as to the context in which you are brainstorming and what you are brainstorming about. Too little attention paid to that context and you are almost guaranteeing failure; this is not the kind of failure that will help you profitably grow your idea into something of value. Thanks for elevating this issue.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Mitch Ditkoff said...

Jeffrey: Thank you! You are my hero for the day. You make a very good point. I find it fascinating that people like to demonize brainstorming, when in fact what they're really demonizing is poorly run brainstorming sessions. Some people demonize marriage, too, but that's likely due to their choice of partners or their inability to navigate the turbulent waters of an intimate relationship.

Brainstorming and marriage (and TV and sushi and vacations and meditation and fasting and a million other things) are only as "good" as the people who experience them make it.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Kerry said...

Amen! It's like you read my mind and heard the conversation I was having with my colleague the other day, who pointed to a Fast Company article that was down with brainstorming. I love your blog and your perspective. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

1:53 PM  

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