Brainstorming – a healthy alternative to creative thinking!

Now, we love a good brainstorm at MadAbout. Loads of sweets, flipcharts, post-it notes and coloured pens. People in a room with a clear brief of a problem to solve and the high energy that the ‘no idea is a bad idea’ culture brings.

BOOM! You’ve got yourself a brainstorm.

Nominal Group Technique

We use the Nominal Group Technique to great effect; this generates a large volume of data from a group in quick time. It then filters that data into themes and those themes into action plans. These are then placed into a strategy document and everyone is given an objective as part of that strategy. We then sit back and ‘hope’. We hope that those actions will lead to fixing the problems we have identified.

But what if we are wrong?

Are we limiting idea generation?

What if, far from being a source of great creativity, the brainstorm is limiting idea generation? Have you ever been part of a brainstorm or creative thinking session – got to the end – looked at the output and thought, “you know, if I had the time and headspace, I could probably have come up with those ideas on my own”? There is no doubt that there is a place in the modern business for teams and departments to come together and look at issues – if nothing else, it helps them identify themselves as a ‘team’ and is an opportunity to communicate a common goal. But I’ve also seen these sessions degenerate into the ‘loud guy show’, where, far from gaining input from everyone, the session encourages the big mouth to have his/her say.

Your own space

A history lesson. In 1942 Alex Osborn, an American journalist and advertising executive, published the book ‘How to Think Up’ in which he presented the technique of Brainstorming. He gave birth to the freedom of ‘no idea is a bad idea’ but his central theme was always that they end, not only with what is possible, but with ideas that actually HAPPEN. Brainstorming seemed to fit the way businesses were heading at the time. Peter Drucker wrote extensively about the ‘knowledge worker’ and encouraged organisations to give their employees personal space. Offices and workspaces became honeycombs of individual areas and screens were put up upon which workers could pin pictures of their cats… Ever more was the need for scheduled moments when teams could come together and discuss issues in the warmth of each other’s company. We are, after all, only human.

The need to ‘Breakout’

The advances in technology then ramped-up this need. With IT and email, workers could be anywhere and still be at work. At home, in a quiet meeting room, or the café with free WiFi. Technology is allowing people to do whatever they want – and most of them want to be anywhere other than with their colleagues most of the time. It’s when they do their best thinking. So enterprising organisations, feeling the need to get people back together, have created new and swanky communal spaces. These are not canteens or meeting rooms, they are Breakout Spaces. Filled with brightly coloured spongy seats, inspirational and creative images and props, they hope to entice groups to use them to gather and discuss business ideas – just watch out for the coffee stains and blob of coleslaw left from lunchtime…

What’s the alternative? Well, we should probably all get together and have a chat. You bring the coffee and I’ll bring the Post-its – DOH!

So here are some ideas for you:

Think of the cost

Before you brainstorm, have a think about the risks. Would it actually be better to give the problem to one, well-informed person and send them to the park with a fiver for a sarnie? I urge Project Managers to do this all the time – does every problem need a ‘team’ to work on it? Sometimes one person working alone (without the baggage of their team mates) can work more effectively.

Involvement is still key

If actions from the problem solving are going to include other people operating differently, it is important for them to be involved in the process. Maybe decide on the solution and then meet for individuals to have their say in how they could implement it?

Do the thinking first

Before your brainstorming, ask the people who you will invite to brainstorm alone before the meeting. Give them the problem and encourage them to generate volume of ideas that they will bring to the meeting. Make sure you give them time and space to do this; it’s almost impossible to be creative and transactional at the same time.

Creativity is behaviour

There is a common perception that creativity is genetic. Only the very smart or very weird are able to be creative. Not only are these notions incorrect, but also they are inhibiting innovation in organisations every day. I’ve got too many ideas of how to encourage creativity behaviour for this article (I can see another blog coming on…) but there are 2 main tips I would offer:

Firstly, get people out of their normal patterns of behaviour. Move them out of the office or familiar spaces.

And secondly, reinforce every idea they suggest. For most people, their reinforcement can be as simple as giving the idea as much effort in consideration as it took to come up with it in the first place.

Is it necessary?

I’m not suggesting for a second that brainstorming isn’t an effective tool. I would just like alternatives to be considered before you go clogging up people’s calendars. Make sure that the intent behind the brainstorm is genuine – and the intervention isn’t just happening because it saves you the effort of thinking or, worse still, that somehow the leader is trying to defer the responsibility of making a decision on to his/her team.

Words into Action

When the sweets have all been eaten (or stuffed into pockets), the Post-its unstuck from drab flipcharts and the colourful pens have all dried out – it is time for the work to start. The value of a brainstorm begins when the brainstorm has ended…