Does brainstorming generate fantastic ideas or is it a colossal waste of time?
Over the past decade, a slew of articles have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Guardian, Harvard Business Review and The New York Times that have offered a new verdict on brainstorming. Allegedly, it doesn’t work.
The articles argue that brainstorming amounts to little more than useless groupthink. The authors maintain that brainstorming typically generates ideas that conform to one another, rather than producing a range of creative and unusual ideas. They cite studies that show that people actually generate better and more diverse ideas when they work quietly on their own.
And yet many of today’s most innovative and creative companies swear by the practice of brainstorming. Innovators at Google, Pixar, Amazon and Procter & Gamble rely on the method religiously, while leaders at top design consultancies and innovation firms profess that brainstorming is the foundation of everything they do.
What can be made of this inconsistency?
At ExperiencePoint, we’ve seen first hand that brainstorming can produce incredible ideas. But we also know how easy it is to inadvertently sabotage an idea-generating session by approaching it as though it were simply an extension of your regular work. Brainstorming is harder than it looks. In many ways, it demands that you let go of your professional persona and embrace an almost childlike curiosity and open mind.
Here are five ways to make sure that you set yourself up for brainstorming success:
Don’t judge/Don’t evaluate
Analysis and evaluation are critical skills. In nearly every aspect of our lives, we’re rewarded for quickly evaluating situations, diagnosing errors, and finding practical solutions. But when it comes to brainstorming, you need to temporarily suspend these habits and embrace a naivety that might feel odd. The purpose of a brainstorm is to come up with as many different options as possible. The greater the number and variety of options, the higher the odds of a valuable idea, so you’ll need to turn off your internal critic and let down your hair. It’s crucial to create a judgment-free atmosphere, in which everyone can embrace a no-holds-barred attitude toward creativity and sharing. The wildest idea might very well ignite the spark for the best one.
Assemble the right group
Successful brainstorms need diverse perspectives and a range of experiences. Don’t just involve key decision-makers from one department; assemble a cross-functional team of people relevant to the project who have different skills and expertise. And keep the numbers low. We think 6-8 people will provide just enough diversity of thought without becoming a “too many cooks” situation and slowing down the group.
Prep your participants
Make sure that everyone knows what the project’s all about, what the session will involve and what its goals are. Provide them with background reading on the brainstorm topic and articles on analogous situations that were solved in different ways. You might even want to set up a shared document in advance where participants can post questions that you can address before the session. You can also use these questions to inform and revise the event.
Imagine you are someone else
“What if?” exercises are great to get the ball rolling or reignite a flagging brainstorm. Assign brainstormers a real or fictional character to play – think farmer, astronaut or George Washington. Now ask them to brainstorm potential concerns from that character’s point of view. It’s another way to help people ponder a problem from a different perspective. Or challenge the team to solve the problem with a budget of $1. Applying stringent constraints on a problem forces people to think about the content in a new way.
Make promising ideas tangible
There’s no better way to help everyone understand and build on an idea than by making it tangible. End your brainstorm by having the group vote on the ideas that they think have the highest potential. Practicality is not the criterion here; be extravagant, romantic and ambitious. Create a quick prototype of the best two or three ideas using a storyboard or even by roleplaying the concept. Once your brainstorms have resulted in a few prototypes that you’re happy with, it’s time to take your ideas to your users to test and evolve.
All these techniques will make the most of the different “brains” you’ve assembled and maximize your brainstorm’s creative output. We know that there’s strength in numbers!
To learn more about brainstorming and human-centered design, check out our ebook Design Thinking 101.