Creativity is key in established businesses as well as startups.
Problem: many idea killers prevent innovation from happening.
In many cases, brainstorming is one of these idea killers.
Let’s see why.
Creating and implementing new ideas are essential, core competencies in today’s business world. As Rita Gunther McGrath explains in her book The End of Competitive Advantage:
The fundamental problem is that deeply ingrained structures and systems designed to extract maximum value from a competitive advantage become a liability when the environment requires instead the capacity to surf through waves of short-lived opportunities. To compete in these more volatile and uncertain environments, you need to do things differently.
As a result, companies need to develop capabilities to adapt and lead new waves of opportunities. Using the right creativity technique to generate new ideas is an essential that will lead your teams to be more responsive to the changing environment.
Contrary to popular belief, innovators are not keen on brainstorming.
Although it is often perceived as a central element for generating new ideas, innovators consider brainstorming a flawed method—not done properly, it kills creativity.
So teams that deal with innovation on a daily basis have developed effective alternatives to brainstorming.
So, how can you avoid brainstorming from being an idea killer?
First, let me explore the reasons why brainstorming is a broken tool, then I will propose brainstorming alternatives to help your team generate fresh ideas.
Avoid the Brainstorming ‘Idea Killer’ Effect
Brainstorming was popularised in the 1950s by the ad man Alex Osborn. The creativity technique is based on the assumption that ‘group-thinking’ meetings (on average 10-12 participants) improves creativity.
Osborn came up with two main brainstorming principles: deferring judgment and aiming for quantity.
He believed that the best way to inspire a great idea was: (1) to come up with as many ideas as possible in a brainstorming session and (2) to select the best ones in a second phase.
However, brainstorming hides two major problems:
Problem #1: No-one really knows the rules of brainstorming. The session becomes a waste of time, rather than a way to stimulate creativity and generate ideas.
Problem #2: Brainstorming does not prepare to the next steps: prototyping, testing, and implementing.
Here’s a complete list of 23 creativity killers that will drawn your brainstorming sessions.
Nobody knows how to brainstorm properly
Brainstorming cannot work if participants do not know how to contribute. Yet, learning how to brainstorm is too often overlooked because it looks too simple, i.e. gathering people in a room and writing down ideas on a whiteboard or on Post-it notes.
Why should we bother training people to come up with ideas? Because it becomes chaotic if you don’t.
IDEO, a design consulting firm, highlights in its Design Kit that participants should review the brainstorming rules before starting. The use of the word ‘review’ is not random. This means that everyone should have some prior knowledge of what it takes to brainstorm.
In the book Group Genius, Keith Sawyer, professor in creativity and innovation, highlights researches that prove that encouraging quantity over quality tends to produce bad ideas. According to Dr. Sawyer, employees at IDEO perform well during their brainstorming sessions because 5-10% of their time is devoted to it. They know the rules. They practice brainstorming almost every day.
Is it the case in your team?
When was the last time you had a productive brainstorming session?
The alternatives to brainstorming that I am going to share get rid off the experience requirement of brainstorming. As your team cannot afford practicing everyday, you need other ways to foster creativity.
It is rare to be part of a productive brainstorming session. By ‘productive’ I mean a session in which constructive ideas flow and the team ends up with workable ideas.
It is easy to spot a session in which some participants are unfamiliar with brainstorming. You find these typical characters here:
- The over-enthusiast – who keeps repeating “we need to think out of the box”,
- The passive – who contributes little,
- The stubborn – who disregards others ideas and criticises them and, finally,
- The pessimist – who thinks that every idea is impossible.
Generating ideas in a brainstorming session requires some practice. More structured alternatives make it easier to deal with a group that lacks experience.
There is no follow up after brainstorming
Brainstorming does not aim at making things real. You brainstormed. You now have plenty of crappy ideas. So what happens next? Nothing…
Let’s take a step back. Why do we need to come up with new ideas? These ideas are potential solutions to a problem we currently face, e.g. looking for growth opportunities, designing a commercially viable business model for a new technology…
At the end of the process our team needs an idea to execute. We want to make it real. How can we utilise the mix of ideas that usually comes out of a brainstorming session?
Simply put: We can’t.
None of these ideas are actionable. They are just words written on Post-it notes. We need to go beyond the Post-it phase – this does not happen often. Creating ideas is a crucial phase of solving a problem. But the whole process is important. And brainstorming is not integrated enough into this process.
I like Gary Hamel’s metaphor on this issue:
Imagine a car motor that lacks a transmission, timing belt, water pump, or starter. The engine may be otherwise well built, but without just one of these components, it will be essentially worthless. So it is with innovation. However much brainstorming your employees do, it will come to naught if they don’t have access to the seed money they need to prototype and test their ideas.
Essentially, brainstorming is inefficient by itself. It’s an idea killer.
Academic research led by Rickards and De Cock proved that when people work alone and then pool their ideas, they are more likely to generate more and better solutions. According to the authors, judgment cannot be fully deferred and participants limit their ideas, due to social pressure.
For these reasons, alternatives to brainstorming have popped up in innovative organisations.
3 Brainstorming Alternatives to Be More Creative
I’d like to introduce three creativity techniques, which come from some of the teams that lead innovation in today’s world.
My goal is not to force your organisation adopt any of these methods. I just want to open your eyes to considering a new way of generating new ideas.
You’ll see these alternatives to brainstorming have a few things in common. It’s not a coincidence if all these teams are super creative.
Note-and-Vote with Google’s Design Sprint
Jake Knapp, design partner at Google Ventures, encourage to stop brainstorming and start sprinting. He’s at the origin of Google’s Design Sprint. Here’s how
The big idea of the sprint is to take a small team, clear the schedule for a week, and rapidly progress from problem to tested solution. On Monday, you make a map of the problem. On Tuesday, each individual sketches solutions. On Wednesday, you decide which sketches are strongest. On Thursday, you build realistic a prototype. And on Friday, you test that prototype with five target customers. It’s like fast-forwarding into the future to see your finished product in the market.
Here’s how to implement the Note-and-Vote process:
Step #1: Participants think individually rather than as a group. (This prevents having someone break the flow of ideas.)
Step #2: The team members vote for the best ideas, keeping in mind that at the end only one person will make the final call.
If you want to learn more about Google’s alternative to brainstorming, you should get yourself a copy of Sprint.
Encourage independent thinking and debating
At Fahrenheit 212, a New York-based innovation consulting firm, Mark Payne also dismisses Osborn’s brainstorming sessions ‘where ideas are celebrated’ and rooms are filled with ‘Post-it notes rather than real value’. In How to Kill a Unicorn, Payne explains their creative process:
The players on the team are sent off their separate ways to think independently about the problem on the table, and then regroup to fire ideas at one another and debate their merits. Ideas are treated not as precious pearls to be polished, but as sparks born of friction. They ignite heat, iterations, and tough questions that propel and shape them further. It’s not an inquisition. But it’s exploration by interrogation. Experience has taught us what the geologists learned long ago: it takes pressure to make diamonds.
Stop brainstorming, greenhouse your ideas
The ?What If! team has also developed a method. They call it ‘greenhousing’ ideas.
What I like is that the method can be used easily with people who are unfamiliar with the structure—customers or employees who are not used to creative environments. As a facilitator leads the session, you can be sure that everyone will have the opportunity to contribute.
Unlike brainstorming, greenhousing focuses on building upon ideas, one after another.
The goal is to end up with actionable ideas. It emphasises on what the ?WhatIf! team calls ‘productive creativity’. Aware that coming up with ideas is just a piece of the car motor (to use Hamel’s imagery) your goal is to build something that you can implement. Questions like ‘How can we make it real?’ are essential in order to keep a foot in reality.
Greenhousing is based on teamwork. Here you need a small team—typically 3 participants and 1 facilitator. You want to limit the flow of information and foster collaboration.
I would recommend leveraging diversity. Gathering three participants who represent different stakeholders or areas of expertise—e.g. design, engineering, and strategy—is a good way to develop ideas that take into account all the challenges.
The Facilitator’s Role in Guiding Creativity
The facilitator leads the session. Their role is to help the team to ‘land an idea’. There is a focus on making the idea real:
– He needs to make sure that everyone is on the same page, regarding the brief — the problem to solve.
– He stimulates creativity by asking questions and ensures the team works on one idea at a time.
– He is in charge of capturing the idea, i.e. writing down details and making it as visual as possible.
If your company has some favorite frameworks, you can ask the facilitator to use them to guide the session. I think, for example, about Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas or Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-Done.
You’d rather come prepared. Greenhousing requires participants to have done some research beforehand. There is no point working without an understanding of the market, the stakeholders, and the technology.
The goal is to build on actionable ideas.
Let’s see how Matt Kingdon, founder of ?What If!, summarises the process in The Science of Serendipity:
A useful innovator’s tool is to ‘greenhouse’ ideas. This means to force the growth of an idea by looking for what’s great about it, the DNA if you like, and building on that.
How to Implement It
Innovative capabilities are essential. Companies need to keep working on the next opportunities. Implementing a method that makes the most of your team’s creativity is therefore crucial.
It helps your team to deal with problems more quickly.
My goal in introducing these three alternatives to brainstorming is to make it easier for your team to build actionable ideas.
You should not get stuck with a pile of Post-it notes. Instead, you will end up with enough detail to make it possible to execute the idea.
As Mark Payne wrote:
[An] idea is a powerful thing — but it’s just an idea. It’s a sketch before the painting. If it’s a big idea, it should have big insight behind it, big benefits in its realisation, and a compelling experience to deliver those benefits. But the truth is that an idea is rarely an answer. It’s usually a hunch wrapped in a bundle of unanswered strategic, operational, technical, and financial questions.
You now need to mix commercial analysis, design and experimentation to make your idea real, remarkable, and profitable. This will be the topic for another post.
Thanks to Kirsten Brown for reading drafts of this.
- The Science of Serendipity
- Business Model Generation
- The End of Competitive Advantage
- How to Kill a Unicorn
- Rickards, T. & De Cock, C. (2012). ‘Understanding Organizational Creativity: Toward a Multiparadigmatic Approach’. In M. Runco (ed.), The Creativity Research Handbook Vol.2, New York: Hampton Press. p.1-31.