Why brainstorms suck and what you can do about it.
“Brainstorm. Two minutes.”
Cue eye roll.
Your cerebellum is pretty awesome, but you’re already juggling a bundle of briefs and your desk is groaning under the weight of your to-do list.
Time and time again, we’re expected to pluck ideas out of thin air. And not just any idea, but innovative sparks of inspiration destined to kick ass at industry awards.
Brainstorming was dreamt up by advertising exec Alex Osborn, one of the original 1940s ‘Mad Men’ slugging whisky in the Big Apple. The rules were simple: get a group together, whack out a load of ideas (the wilder the better) and withhold any form of criticism. And it worked for him. It took ideas away from the board room and Osborn reported a 50% rise in creativity. However, Osborn’s system is intrinsically flawed and science can prove it.
A review of over 800 teams found that groups generate fewer original ideas than those flying solo.
You would think that many minds make light work. So, what’s the hitch?
- Participants are less likely to voice their ideas, if they feel like the novice in the room
- Essentially, many of us are Social Loafers (or just plain lazy) and we’re less likely to pull our finger out, if we think others might do it for us
- Anxiety takes over, with many participants worrying that their ideas will be dismissed by their peers
- Due to a phenomenon known as ‘regression to the mean’, top talent has a tendency to dumb down their performance to the lowest common denominator
So, what’s the solution? Here’s five tried and tested tools I use regularly to help people have better ideas, working solo or as a team.
1. What would Bieber do?
Commonly known as rolestorming, this technique was developed in the early 1980s by Rick Griggs. The theory is that if you pretend to be someone else, you’ll let your guard down and feel more comfortable sharing ideas. By taking on another persona, you’re distanced from owning the idea, and are more likely to come up with original concepts. Draft a list of celebrities, fictional characters, friends and family and consider how they would approach the problem. Donald Trump, Willy Wonka, Kate Moss, a spoilt six year old, a bored housewife in Shanghai, my granny and the local postman are some of my favourites. Why not take it one step further, and don the mask of your new persona?
2. Step Up
Devised by Rogelberg, Barnes-Farrell and Lowe in the early 1990s, the Stepladder Technique encourages all members to contribute and stops your brilliant mind being swayed by the idle ramblings of others.
- Issue the problem to all players at least two days in advance, giving them time to mull it over and start forming hypotheses
- Bring two members together to discuss the problem
- Invite a third group member to present ideas to the core group, before hearing what is already on the table. Then, open the discussion
- Repeat with all remaining team members
- Make sure everyone shares their ideas, before reaching a final decision
3. Silent Storm
Based on Rohrbach’s 365 Brainwriting technique, this is a handy tool to ensure everyone’s ideas get out in the open, allowing quieter voices to be heard. Each team member (4-7 works best here) is given a blank sheet of paper and 5 minutes to write or draw up to 5 solutions to the given problem. Sheets are then passed to the right and the process repeated, with the next participant free to draw inspiration from their neighbour’s ideas.
4. Fresh Faces
Swarm, the creative collaboration company, brings together a smorgasbord of talented, curious folk to solve social and environmental challenges. Your ideas will only stretch as far as your experience, so adding novel minds, with novel experiences will help grow the idea bank. I use a trade system, jumping in on friend’s idea sessions in exchange for the loan of their gray matter when I need it most.
5. Get Away
Get a change of scene. Better yet, skip the country. Adam Galinsky, Columbia Business School professor, found that international travel heightens your ability to jump between different ideas (cognitive flexibility) and connect disparate concepts (integrativeness of thought), both fundamental to creative thinking. This doesn’t mean an international tour of Starbucks’ finest outlets. The key is complete immersion in the local culture. Galinsky’s latest study found a clear correlation between foreign experiences and innovative output of creative directors at 270 high-end fashion houses.
Have you tried any of these techniques? What works for you? We’d love to hear your stories of good, bad and damn right ugly brainstorms.
P.S. I'm pumped to announce that this is the first article I'm contributing to Open for Ideas, the new online destination for individuals and organisations looking to boost their creativity. There'll be no fluff about seducing your muse or release your inner artist. Launching in the next few days, the site will be packed with practical advice, techniques and science. Sign up here to be the first to find out when we launch.