Sunday, 15 July 2012

Brainstorming doesn't work.

Brainstorming doesn’t work.

In the 40’s and 50’s, Alex Osborn (one of the dudes who started up BBDO) outlined in a series of books the concept of Brainstorming. This creative technique advocated volume of ideas over quality and the nurturing of all suggestions in group work. The output of such sessions where ‘no idea is a bad idea’ would be useful and tangible material from which a project and a business could prosper.

I’m sure you’ve been in a brainstorm. We’re all familiar with this daily dose of destiny at a business level. As I type this and as you read it, there is probably somewhere a nervous office junior clutching a flip chart whilst some blazer wearing incompetent gathers up post in notes of luminous colours on which are written half-baked and poorly captured thinking in what the business sees as useful and important brainstorming sessions.

Each year £20bn is spent on training. A percentage of which is no doubt spent on innovation and creativity development where brainstorming and its techniques are rolled out.
It doesn’t work.

It’s costing you money.

I can count on one hand the people I think are any good at it.
You don’t have to go far on a literature search in book or web to cite hundreds of studies over the past few decades – way back to Osborne’s time – that suggest brainstorming is no more effective at idea generation than allowing individuals to ruminate with their own thoughts over time. Some have even suggested that the group dynamic of over emphasising our own performance actually means brainstorming is a sure way to get LESS output than scratching our heads alone.
So here is my point of view on all this:

Brainstorming doesn’t work for four reasons.

1. The facilitation how or who is actually running the session in order to garner output.
2. The over emphasis on creative techniques to push thinking.
3. The actual capture of output that leads to confusion.
4. The belief we have to be positive at all times.

and now let me expand and explain.

1. 99% of the time, there is no-one actually facilitating the brainstorming session. Facilitation can become a dirty word so I’ll clear it up here. The facilitator’s role is to capture OUTPUT from the session. Facilitation is not about coming up with the ideas. If it were – then we wouldn’t need brainstorming and we could all sit at home all day and come up with ideas. If any two people meet in the creative process, one of them needs to agree to be the facilitator in order to record and agree the next steps, if not, then it’s just a conversation in a corridor, lift, boardroom or office cubicle that’s wasted. Back to brainstorming sessions, few facilitators/moderators/trainers/coaches have the skills or experience to recognise what is going on, how they need to be, how others need to be and then what to do to get the best output of a session. At a skill level it’s all executed with post it notes and marker pens (sigh) and at a behavioural level it’s all about ‘being positive at all times’ -surprisingly the last thing we actually want. Facilitation is key to a great brainstorm session. Without it, nothing happens. It’s just a chat. And the more people in the room shouting at a flip chart, the more time you’re wasting.

2. There is an over emphasis on creative techniques. Think about any classic books called ‘101’ lateral thinking techniques. This is 100 too many. In fact, you’ve a 100 techniques to forget. The main things for people to be able to do is be able to connect any random piece of stimulus to the challenge they face. This is actually super easy when facilitated, coached, supported and given a simple walk through of what to do and how to be. It’s what we do naturally in most conversations. There is no need to list anything and challenge it, dress up, draw, act or introduce toys from a bag. It’s distracting. If you’re being well facilitated, the problem and your own astonishing ability is all you need. I think I’d be totally out of order in citing links on YouTube to sessions showing these dreadful sessions, tools and technqiues. I respect people’s work at any level and this is blog is not about pointing fingers without context BUT the web is littered with misleading information. Keep things simple and at pace and you can have ideas on ANYTHING... a subject I’ll return to another time.

3. Finally the output is poorly captured. Too many thoughts instead of ideas. Consider “I think we should eat out tonight” is a thought. “I think we should eat at the Curry House at the end of the street”. This is an idea. It’s something we can DO and everyone understand it at the same level. “..eating out tonight” is open to interpretation and too often it’s this comment that’s captured on a post it as output from a Brainstorm. Get it right. Capture IDEAS and not THOUGHTS.

I’ll save a further posting for the big contention; no. 4 that we don’t need to be positive to have a good idea. For that, dear readers, you’ll have to wait. I thank you however for making it this far.

As for the questions on what we as a business did this week... we held two Brainstorms. And on both occasions for our clients, we mitagated against disaster and made sure there were facilitators in the room, we schoold folk on ideas and not thoughts, we embraced the critical comments and we stuck to the brief.

Tomorrow, if someone says let’s have a brainstorm – tell them not to bother...

.. or call us

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