Seven Steps to Better Brainstorming

Important for CEOs to Maintain and Reset Focus

Seven Steps to Better Brainstormingby Idris Mootee

Let’s start with this…this is not the best title. I really don’t like the word “brainstorming.” It means a group of people getting together to generate a lot of deas for the solution of a problem. In 1953 Alex Faickney Osborn popularized the method in his book called Applied Imagination, he proposed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming. Fully the book title is called Applied Imagination, which is very appropriate, and the trick is on the “Applied” part.

The authors of BRAINSTEERING by Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne pointed out the problem with brainstorming today is a bunch of people selected (for technical or political reasons) and put together in a room and an external moderator asking people to think outside the box. Traditional brainstorming is fast, furious, and ultimately shallow which I am in full agreement. By taking a more well planned approach can get better outcome from their ideas/solutions generating workshops investments.

I’ve seen how many moderators have no ideas of how large organization functions or any training on advanced group problem solving techniques, design thinking concepts and tools or system thinking or sense-making, and that’s usually a recipe for failure.

The McKinsey Quarterly article Seven steps to better brainstorming, taken from the author’s new book BRAINSTEERING, attempts to address some of these issues. They called it Brainsteering and it may be another buzzword, but anything is better than brainstorming. Here are their key recommendations from the authors and I’ve added my comments for readers’ considerations:

  • Know Your Organization’s Decision-Making Criteria – Managers hoping to spark creative thinking in their teams should therefore start by understanding (and in some cases shaping) the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about the resulting ideas. Are there any absolute restrictions or limitations, for example?

My advice is this may be appropriate in some instances, generally speaking it puts way too much constrains on the creative process. For those of who have worked in large organizations, we know how difficult and almost impossible to know the criteria for decisions making. It is a political process as well as a realization process and it is not what is written down in any company’s operating manual. I think this is unrealistic. Plus the fact that the change in external environment can quickly change the risks appetite of senior executives and any criteria we impose may be not valid at all. I would say ignore this one.

  • Ask The Right Questions – Decades of academic research shows that traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques (“Go for quantity—the greater the number of ideas, the greater the likelihood of winners!”) are inferior to approaches that provide more structure. Build your workshop around a series of “right questions” that your team will explore in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions. The trick is to identify questions with two characteristics. First, they should force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective.

I would say this is the number one most important part in any creative exercise. How we practice this at Idea Couture is we apply Design Thinking techniques in helping them to frame and identify the issues, better framing means new perspectives and better solutions. There is a lot of science and art in doing this. We use visual sense making, customer journey mapping, strategic foresight scenarios and other five or six techniques to get the job done.

Strategic framing can involve using many different lenses, and one example would be time. Time could be a frame of reference. Whether we are talking about past, present, and future. Younger people frames the world in optimistic terms where mature people are realistic as they come to terms with many things in life. An organization’s past history carry forward certain orthodoxies that also limit how they see things.

  • Choose The Right People – They suggest only picking people who can answer the questions you’re asking. As obvious as these sounds, it’s not what happens in many traditional brainstorming sessions, where participants are often chosen with less regard for their specific knowledge than for their prominence on the org chart.

I understand the authors’ point, but it is about balance. I don’t think we can ignore the fact that decision-making in large organizational setting is always a political process. We need a balance of domain knowledge, outsider perspectives, and project stakeholders in order to get momentum. This is a necessary evil. You cannot ignore people who have a prominent voice in an organization and part of the power circle. That’s life.

  • Divide and conquer – When assign people to subgroups, it’s important to isolate “idea crushers” in their own subgroup. These people are otherwise suitable for the workshop but, intentionally or not; prevent others from suggesting good ideas. They come in three varieties: bosses, “big mouths,” and subject matter experts. The boss’s presence, which often makes people hesitant to express unproven ideas, is particularly damaging if participants span multiple organizational levels. Big mouths take up air time, intimidate the less confident, and give everyone else an excuse to be lazy. Subject matter experts can squelch new ideas because everyone defers to their presumed superior wisdom, even if they are biased or have incomplete knowledge of the issue at hand.

The authors have a lot of good suggestions here about carefully picking the people and assign them to the group and managing “big mouths” is a very good one. This requires a little bit of advance planning but our experiences says it is an important step that we should not ignore. Yes, brainstorming needs strategic planning.

One big big one the authors have missed is the role of social technologies play in the idea generation and management value chain. This has a big implications on how ideas are collected, socialized and activated. Ideas are far better when they are built on top of one another, at that point, you can’t even chase it back to where the idea was originated from. That’s another post, next week perhaps.

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Idris MooteeIdris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.

Idris Mootee




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No Comments

  1. Braden Kelley on April 26, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Honored to see that my book is there in your reading stack right under BRAINSTEERING. Hopefully your stack is in order and you’re going to read the wonderful orange book ‘Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire‘ next




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