Why Brainstorming is Stupid
I was recently interviewed for an article on Inc.com. Due to length restrictions, only part of my interview was included in the article. Therefore I am giving you the other half here. But be sure to read the their article first as it sets the stage.
I was asked by Inc.com why brainstorming, as usually practiced, is ineffective.
Personally I am not a huge fan of brainstorming, especially the way most organizations conduct sessions. Here are a few of my concerns, along with some possible solutions:
- Poorly defined challenge: As discussed in the Inc.com article, if you ask the wrong question, you will of course get the wrong answer. Most brainstorming sessions do a poor job of thinking through the challenge. If I were running a session, I would spend a bulk of the time making sure we have the right question. Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and 1 minute finding solutions.” From my experience, most companies spend 60 minutes brainstorming issues that are not important.
- Lack of Diversity: Most brainstorming sessions bring in the same people to each and every session. Usually the room is composed of people who are too close to the issue to be objective or even have a new point of view. Innovation only occurs when you have a wide range of perspectives. Therefore, make sure you identify others that have a tangential perspective.– people from different industries or disciplines. This will certainly add value.
- Group Think: When one person throws out a solution, it taints the mindset of everyone else in the room. This causes convergence too early in the process. Instead, consider having everyone jot down his or her individual responses first. Only after that is done, should you have everyone share their thoughts with the group.
- Single Threading: Most brainstorming sessions are done with a leader at the front and only one person speaking at a time. This slows down the process and leads to “social loafing.” In response, some leaders will break everyone into smaller groups. Unfortunately this leads to a lack of cross-pollination. To respond to this issue, I developed a technique modeled after the “Speaker’s Corner” in London’s Hyde Park (described in my Best Practices Are Stupid book). With this method, simultaneous conversations take place with participants moving freely from topic to topic as desired.
- Innovation Event: Brainstorming is typically treated as an event. Too often it is disconnected from the “reality” of the business and therefore does not convert the ideas into results. If you think of the event as the start of a process, you have a better chance of creating value. Before the meeting, get clear on what you will do after the brainstorming session. Get buy-in early on from the people who will make change happen. When innovation is a process, it is repeatable and predictable.
Ok, brainstorming can be effective (and not stupid), if done properly. Unfortunately most organizations do not take the time to do it right. Applying the concepts above can hopefully move you in the right direction.