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Braindrizzling (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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I’m traveling on vacation, with limited time and less attention for writing stuff. Which means it’s time for another re-run. This one from 20 years ago give or take a week, is about brainstorming and how not to do it. It’s one of my all time favorites. Hope you find some use for it yourself.

– Bob

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In the end, technique can’t substitute for courage.

Take, for example, brainstorming. By now, most of us in business have learned how to brainstorm properly. We sit at the table, politely waiting our turn while the facilitator asks for our ideas in strict rotation, writing them down verbatim while we all take great care to avoid offering even the slightest appearance of criticism lest it intimidate the flow of creative thought.

Then we get our milk and cookies and take a nap.

Not only can’t technique substitute for courage, but it can prevent the very benefits you’re trying to achieve. Brainstorming, or at least the form of brainstorming most of us have been taught in facilitation school, not only doesn’t work but can’t work.

Let’s start with the standard practice of presenting ideas in strict rotation. The reason for doing so is to make sure everyone gets a chance — important among children; ridiculous among supposed adults who by now ought to grasp how to converse in public. Forcing adults to take turns in a brainstorming session is a superior way to drain the energy out of a group. Jill makes a point that Fred wants to embellish. Fred, however, has to wait until three other people have presented entirely different ideas, not because they especially wanted to, but because it was their turn. By the time Fred’s turn arrives, any remaining shred of continuity has fled the room and the effort Fred must expend to restore it greatly exceeds the value of the embellishment, so Fred doesn’t bother.

Nor does Fred bother to do anything else. His mental energy has been used to repress the expression of his idea.

Meanwhile, Ralph has made an off-the-wall suggestion. Rather than offer her critique, Kayla bites her tongue because it isn’t time for critiquing right now. That’s too bad, because had she been allowed to do so her comments would have caused a mental light bulb to turn on in Zack’s mind.

So here’s a suggestion on how to make brainstorming work: Rather than spend a lot of time and energy preventing the flow of ideas so as to cater to the timid, why don’t we spend a small fraction of it counseling the timid on the nature of professionalism.

My parents’ generation charged pillboxes on Guadalcanal. Compared to that, is asking someone to speak up in a team meeting too much courage to ask for?

Comments (4)

  • The only truly successful brainstorming session I ever ran required first uninviting the department manager, who was the person who engaged my services, then reassigning job titles to everyone left in the room. I also had the participants take turns as whiteboard scribe while I was mind-mapping. The innovation in that session was OK but not a quantum leap. The true breakthrough came when I individually interviewed the participants a couple of days later. Two of them had been pondering a roughly similar but very unusual idea. I got them together, asked a few questions, and kept them talking when they seemed to run into a wall. It was “just an idea” when we stopped for that day. Nearly two years later, it was a technology breakthrough from which we all benefit today.

    Non-disclosure agreements prevent me from further explanation, but I should mention that the idea wasn’t entirely new within the group. It had been previously been lightly suggested, almost as a joke, a couple of times, but the manager had called it, variously “stupid”. “impossible,” “a waste of time,” and numerous other disparaging words.

    I reminded the two who were still intrigued by the concept that “the impossible takes a little longer.” They secretly continued to work on refining the idea. Eventually, the manager got promoted to somewhere else where he could be a negative influence, and…the rest is history but not mine to tell.

  • Hi Bob, thanks for raising this topic. Why do you think some people do not feel comfortable speaking up in team meetings?

  • You forgot the part where the leader draws the picture with the box and the nonlinear points, and teaches us that in order to be right, we must Learn to Think Outside The Box.

  • EXCELLENT piece! And it reminded me how IBM created some kind of brainstorming enhancer. I remember being in a somewhat darkened room, staring at a monitor, with several other similarly situated folks making almost a full circle around the ‘moderator’. The computer would display anonymous stuff, and people could respond ‘real time’, supposedly reducing the fears of speaking up. I think there was some way we could vote on what we thought was the most interesting idea. All without the pesky problems with talking with the other folks.

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