Mistake 13: Relying on brainstorming for idea generation

Go ahead, admit it.  You’ve sat through countless “brainstorming” activities that resulted in ideas that were obvious from the start, or sessions that led exactly to the conclusion the person leading the session anticipated.  Brainstorming as an idea generation technique is misused and abused, and has become the proverbial strawman that many analysts and authors seek to prop up temporarily before they tell you that individuals can create more and better ideas in less time than groups can in brainstorming.  Or what a terrible, soul-wrenching experience brainstorming is.  Or something else terrible.

It’s time to acknowledge that 1) brainstorming is a bit overtaxed 2) there’s a lot of cynicism about the technique and 3) there are literally thousands of idea generation methods equal to or better than brainstorming.

We need a new word

Unfortunately, innovation and brainstorming have become part of the common parlance.  What innovation needs is good methods to generate insightful, useful ideas.  Methods and tools that engage people, excite and spark their creativity, and lead to good outcomes.  Fortunately, there are a number of idea generation techniques and creativity exercises that you can use to generate ideas, and none of them have to be associated with brainstorming.

Here’s a short list of some methods we use, and the rationale for their use.

  • Brainwriting – allowing individuals to write ideas and share them with each other, rather than calling out ideas.   Engages a different part of the brain and involves people who are more quiet, more introspective and more reticent
  • Attribute Isolation – eliminate everything about the problem but the attribute or outcome you are trying to improve.  For example, let’s assume you want to clean water.  What cleans water?  Charcoal, bleach, sunshine, rapids, mangrove swamps, oysters and shellfish.  What can we learn or adapt from these current solutions?
  • Guaranteed Failure – often, teams struggle to generate ideas because the problem isn’t evident or well defined.   Guaranteed Failure starts where most people are more comfortable – finding faults or failures rather than suggesting new solutions.  Start by defining how to fail at your stated task rather than how to succeed
  • Reframing – rather than accept the stated “framing” of a problem or challenge, ask what would happen if we examined the problem with a different perspective or framing.  You can enlarge the framing or scope, narrow the scope or completely reframe the scope.
  • How would BLANK solve this – If you are stuck in your own perspective or your industry’s perspective, you can ask how an outsider would address a problem or need.  For example, how would Apple distribute music?  (Seems evident now, but wasn’t before the iPod).  How would Wal-Mart offer banking services?  How would Richard Branson design a hospital?

There are hundreds of other methods to use to generate ideas.  Relying on brainstorming, which has a lot of baggage associated with it, can be dangerous.  Note however that many of the failings attributed to brainstorming can present themselves in any tool or setting.  Some of the reasons brainstorming is hated – poor planning, inadequate problem or challenge framing, poor facilitation or biased facilitation, lack of team engagement, uncertainty around expectations and outcomes – exist in any idea generation program.  Until your innovation teams take the time to adequately prepare for idea generation, provide excellent facilitation and use tools effectively, your innovation programs will only be as good as the ideas you generate.  In this case it’s not a case of garbage in, garbage out.  It’s a case of crushing dreams, energy and expectations through a terrible idea generation experience.



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