We’ve all been there: sitting for hours in a window-less, air-less conference room with a collection of colleagues, “brainstorming” ideas for some project. The folks in the room are taking turns spouting half-baked, half-witted concepts that wouldn’t solve the original problem, even with the largest budget on record. But no one is stopping them, correcting them, even pausing to question. That’s because they’re all subscribing to the key rule of brainstorming, as developed by Alex Osborn in the late 1940’s – the absence of criticism and negative feedback. “There are no bad ideas,” the facilitator continuously states. “Oh, yes, there are,” you think.
Thankfully, there is a growing evidence that suggests that old-school brainstorming is ineffective. An article in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer points to studies by Charlan Nemeth that suggest the ineffectiveness stems from the very thing that is held most sacrosanct – the absence of critical thinking. “Debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas, but, rather, stimulate them,” Nemeth said. As more and more creativity is being done by groups, the old rules of brainstorming are outdated.
So, what are some more appropriate rules for collaborating and brainstorming for creativity?
1) It’s not a numbers game
Don’t think that collecting “as many ideas as we can” is a good goal. Instead, focus on getting a few good ones. So often, the goal for quantity overwhelms our desire for usable, executable, or relevant ideas. Less can be more.
2) Allow criticism and debate
If an idea can’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s likely not a very good one. Conversely, if you give a germ of an idea some critical thinking as fertilizer, it can really sprout into something. Negativity in a brainstorm might take away some of its feel-good vibe, but it will also add some creative conflict, adaptation and lateral thinking. As Nemeth says, “criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. The power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives.” Allow yourself some judgment – this will also save you time later
3) Be bad on purpose
Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) points to a tactic he discovered early in his career as a television writer, called the “bad version”. When you know there’s a creative solution but can’t come up with it yet, you start with a bad version of the idea – if only to stimulate others to come up with the good version. In this scenario, people don’t applaud the bad version like a bad answer on “Family Feud” (“Good answer, good answer”) – they, instead, critique it and find a better version.
4) Assign pre-work
One tactic for better brainstorming would be to assign people with homework to arrive with ideas. This serves a couple of purposes. One, they have some uninterrupted, private time to do some thinking, with no in-room pressure. And, two, it forces individuals to be a bit more critical of their own ideas, hopefully ensuring a higher quality of ideas from the get-go.
5) Steal good ideas from others
Often, a great source of ideas can be “proven” ideas from other, unrelated disciplines, categories, industries. Moving these everyday ideas from one category to a new one can turn them from standard operating procedure to breakthrough and revolutionary. Bill Taylor, in an HBR Blog article, points to Lexus’ leveraging of Apple’s and Four Season’s approaches to the customer experience as one example.
6) Punt, early and often
Don’t waste time trying to turn every bad idea into a good one. Sometimes your time is better spent by simply brooming them, and moving on. Yes, many times bad ideas can help lead you to good ones, but that won’t always be the case. So be judicious in your time spent on the baddies.
Do you agree? What are your brainstorming beliefs?