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Beyond Brainstorming. It's not either or, it's and

Like the cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano, there is one annual event that generally ruffles the feathers of creative facilitators. 

Usually it’s an article on the perils and pitfalls of brainstorming. Typically, the article cites a study that proves that individuals working alone produce more ideas working in a group. Or it’s the latest incarnation of the idea that brainstorming as practiced by most companies isn’t very productive.

So what’s the feather ruffling part?

It begins with an observation I recently shared in Nashville at the IFCA conference in a talk called Beyond Brainstorming. 

Alex Osborn is generally regarded as the father of modern brainstorming.  His book, Applied Imagination, became a business sensation in the 1950s by creating a framework for generating ideas in groups.

But more people cite the book than actually read it.  In the book, Osborn says very clearly that group brainstorming is merely a supplement to individual brainstorming.  In other words: “here’s another tool to help you create ideas.”

So if you want to go by the gospel of brainstorming, it shouldn’t be a question of which is better (either/or) but and.   It’s about using a variety of techniques to generate ideas.

Dana Montenegro of Seriously Creative and my company, Inotivity combine group and individual brainstorming in the same session in a unique process called IDEA Engineering.

The second feather ruffling is that most companies don’t follow most of the “rules” set out in Osborn’s book.  Surprisingly, they haven’t changed that much.  The main theme is to defer judgment and generate quantity. Leave the hen-pecking to later.

Most creatives understand that brainstorming works well when facilitated well -- but over the years brainstorming has evolved into many varied techniques that help inviduals think better and to build upon the ideas of diverse thinkers in grouos.  

I want to share some insights from one of the best collaborative thinkers on the planet, Tim Brown of IDEO.   It’s from his book, Change by Design.

“Business school professors are fond of writing learned articles about the value of brainstorming. I encourage them to continue to do so (after all, some of my best friends are business school professors, and it keeps them busy and out of my way). Some surveys claim that motivated individuals can generate more ideas in the equivalent time working on their own. Other case studies demonstrate that brainstorming is as essential to creativity as exercise is to a healthy heart. As is so often the case, there is truth on both sides. 

The skeptics certainly have a case: a well-intentioned manager who assembles a group of individuals who don’t know one another, who are skeptical, and who lack confidence and gives them a tough problem to brainstorm is likely to get fewer viable ideas than if each of them had been sent away to think about the problem individually.

Brainstorming, ironically, is a structured way of breaking out of structure. It takes practice. As with cricket or football (or their American equivalents), there are rules for brainstorming. The rules lay out the playing fieldwithin which a team of players can perform at high levels.

Without rules there is no framework for a group to collaborate within, and a brainstorming session is more likely to degenerate into either an orderly meeting or an unproductive free-for-all with a lot of talking and not much listening. Every organization has its own variations on the rules of brainstorming (just as every family seems to have its own version of Scrabble or Monopoly). At IDEO we have dedicated rooms for our brainstorming sessions, and the rules are literally written on the walls: Defer judgment. Encourage wild ideas. Stay focused on the topic. The most important of them, I would argue, is “Build on the ideas of others.” It’s right up there with “Thou shalt not kill” and “Honor thy father and thy mother,” as it ensures that every participant is invested in the last idea put forward and has the chance to move it along.

Brainstorming is not necessarily the ultimate technique for idea generation, and it cannot be built into the structure of every organization. But it does prove its worth when the goal is to open up a broad spectrum of ideas. Other approaches are important for making choices, but nothing beats a good brainstorming.

Well said Tim. See you in Capistrano.

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