In business, growth is king. The targets we need to meet consistently require us to develop new and more creative ways to increase revenues. And when we’re out of good ideas, the natural next step is to set up a brainstorming session. A sure-fire way to deliver lots of practical new ideas, right?
Or perhaps not.
If you find that brainstorming frequently fails on its promise to deliver, you’re not alone. When six people have spent an hour in a room and plastered the walls with scores of sticky-notes – what’s left at the end? Rarely the amazing new idea that was hoped for.
Brainstorming is failing business today – and there’s a good reason for this. Fourteen in fact!
The process of brainstorming was coined in 1953 by Alex Osborn, an ad-agency executive, and it quickly caught the attention and imaginations of many at the time. However, the earliest investigations into the effectiveness of brainstorming happened at Yale University in 1958. The surprising findings were that 48 solo-participants had roughly twice as many ideas as 48 participants formed into brainstorming groups. A panel of judges regarded the individuals’ ideas to be more feasible and effective than those from the groups. Other studies have arrived at similar conclusions.
Keith Sawyer, a psychologist from Washington University, summarized the findings “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
While a brainstorming group will get more ideas than you ever would working on your own, it’s a fundamentally flawed process. Conventional brainstorming is – to be blunt – a terrible waste of good-people’s time. And here’s why.
Let’s start by looking at the traditional rules of brainstorming to see why they don’t work.
#1 There are no dumb ideas. Encourage wild and exaggerated thinking
There are plenty of dumb ideas. Everyone in a brainstorming session knows that many of the ideas that are created will be impractical, way beyond the scope of the issue, too risky, not aligned to the company values or business aims – and so on. Wild and exaggerated ideas aren’t stupid ideas – they’re just totally impractical pie-in-the-sky stuff. So they might as well be dumb.
#2 Quantity counts at this stage, not quality
No it’s not. Quality is always important. Fewer ideas but with a better sense of quality will always be of more value than a large number of useless ideas.
#3 Don’t criticize other people’s ideas
There’s limited time available in a brainstorming session, and if someone is being consistently way beyond the realistic, then wouldn’t a little constructive guidance help them to potentially create the one idea we are looking for within the likely acceptable zone? Is there any other aspect of business where we encourage people to be wrong? Not offering guidance is a clear failure of any process.
#4 Build on other people’s ideas
Sometimes useful, but often it can start adding weight and credence to an idea that wouldn’t have made the grade if someone hadn’t started to build on it.
#5 Every person and every idea has equal worth
No! Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute something useful. How they use that time is up to them. Allowing people to wander too far into la-la-land starts to waste their chance for meaningful contributions – and it can also start to lead other people astray too.
#6 Create a fun environment.
The future growth of your company often depends on these brainstorming sessions – so do you think that fun is at the forefront of your Board of Director’s mind? Children need to have fun. Serious professionals relish the chance to stretch their brains. There’ll be more overall satisfaction among the participants if they sense a successful outcome rather than them having a fun time.
#7 Only one person talking at a time
When you’re trying to concentrate on some important thinking issue, do you find it useful to have someone blabbing? Especially when you are supposed to be paying attention to what they’re saying? I doubt it. Our best ideas frequently come when we have moments of silence to consider the issue in our mind. This brainstorming rule ensures that there may only be one person talking at a time – but also that there’s always someone talking.
So the basic principles of a brainstorming session are flawed. But that’s not all. There are other deeper issues that cause problems too.
#8 HiPPOs rule the waves
The highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) openly and sub-consciously influences what success will look like. What they offer in the way of ideas, how they comment on the ideas of others, the slow-nodding of their head in agreement when they hear a good idea. HiPPOs adversely affect what people say and do in brainstorming sessions. Having a HiPPO in the room can also limit what ideas people voice for fear of making a career-limiting move through the suggestion of an idea which the HiPPO may regard negatively.
#9 Accepting the lowest common denominator
Rather than allowing a motivated individual to develop a feasible idea that they feel passionate about, a brainstorming group often promotes the idea that they feel most comfortable with. This is the lowest common denominator of agreement. It’s similar to agreeing to just take the low-hanging fruit, which invariably consists of lesser, and easier ideas to execute. While the brainstorming group is promoting the lowest common denominator as their recommendation – the best opportunity for the business may invariably be left on the wall.
#10 False anchoring
Early in the session, somebody puts up an idea which gets a supportive comment like “that’s brilliant“. This is a recipe for disaster, for from that moment on, this idea acts as a false anchor or a black hole for thinking. Similarly with a HiPPO’s comment too. The early ideas in a session frequently tend to get prominence, as people openly (or inadvertently) state their pet-idea with some supporting comment designed to influence people. The early ideas (if they are strong) tend to define the terrain and also form immovable anchors. Additionally, people who are the acknowledged experts in their field will invariably tend to provide artificial anchor points through the ideas they voice in a group.
#11 Aggression or agreement
If a team is involved in brainstorming an issue, the general guidelines sit around being supportive and reaching a consensus. However pleasant and warming it may feel, in-breeding isn’t a desirable trait to encourage. Teams need to get outsiders in to strongly challenge their thinking. This is contrary to the brainstorming approach where a team want to be seen to be getting along. Potentially, it’s during this search for new opportunities where the existing ‘pleasant stability’ needs to be most-strongly challenged.
#12 Voting on ideas
Frequently at the end of a brainstorm, people vote on the best ideas to take forward. Unless the team are all responsible for the success of the outcome, the choice of what to do next should be left to the owner of the issue. They, as the responsible person, should decide in the light of a new-day what will be taken forward. In longer ideation sessions that have an overnight break, it’s remarkable how often the priorities identified at the end of the previous day change as a result of the overnight subconscious of the participants being given time to influence – without any formal exercises being done. If a brainstorming group vote on the best idea in a session, it’s demoralising for them when a single person overrides their decision at a later stage.
#13 The illusion of productivity
A group of people working towards the same company goals will invariably feel that their combined skills, knowledge and abilities working in a brainstorming session will have added value to the business. The aforementioned lowest common denominator effect potentially means that they will deliver outputs lower than their potential to achieve. Unfortunately this starts reinforcing beliefs that mediocrity is deemed to be success – and that the process has been successful.
At the end of a session, it’s customary for the sponsor to thank people and be complimentary about the output. If six people have been in the meeting, five will walk out having been warmly-thanked by the sixth, and feel that they’ve added value in the time they gave up. The sponsor, meanwhile, is left to pull some magic out of a sticky-note hat. One unhappy person, five happy – and the myth of another valuable brainstorming session is perpetuated within the business.
So much of the process and structure of a brainstorming session works contrary to what is required to facilitate exceptional, new, business thinking. It was 1953 when Alex Osborn’s book Applied Imagination birthed brainstorming. It was a cutting-edge concept at the time. It thrived in the same corporate offices alongside accounting’s hand-cranked adding-machines and marketing’s action list written in chalk on the blackboard in the director’s office.
Times have changed. The adding machines and blackboards are sitting in landfill sites or museums. But shockingly, a company’s thinking about growth opportunities still hangs on brainstorming.
In 2018 brainstorming will be sixty-five years-old – the official retirement age in most businesses. But any company that is serious in its needs for better growth opportunities should retire it early.
Brainstorming is a broken model with too much ineffective-momentum locked up in it to be able to be turned around. Today is as good-a-day as any to put it out of its misery. Brainstorming is an inefficient thinking process, and business growth deserves something better. It needs to be replaced with a thinking approach that is based upon our contemporary knowledge of how the mind works.
Brainstorming encourages passive thinking – a peaceful, wait-your-turn, unbounded type of thinking. It’s time for a twenty-first century approach to thinking. A more aggressive, focused, and stimulating approach that will help businesses to out-think their competition. And Active Thinking delivers this.
You can read how to run an Active Thinking session here.
Chris Thomason is Managing Director of Ingenious Growth, a business growth design company. He is also the author of The Delicate Force which explains what drives our ideas, inspiration and creativity. The Delicate Force is available from the Amazon online bookstore.