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.