Modern Management forces leaders and their teams to engage in the process of solving ‘wicked’ problems, and in the past decades, it has become a requirement for companies to use an outside-in approach. This means that solutions be customer centred and addressed real customer needs.
Teams are under increasing pressure to co-create solutions within shorter periods of time. Meetings are essential for enabling collaboration, creativity, and innovation, and teams spend about half of their weekly work time seating in meetings, which require participants to ‘think up’. Alex Osborn faced the same situation in the 1940s when his advertising agency, BBDO, was teetering on the edge and looking for ideas. It was then he applied his own process of “organized ideation”, which later became known as brainstorming because participants felt they were using the brain to storm a problem.
Osborn’s brainstorming asks participants to focus on quantity rather than quality. He came up with this creative process of four rules:
- Set the goal of the process
- No criticism from other team members
- Crazy ideas are more than welcome
- Participants are encouraged to combine each others’ ideas and make them better together
Brainstorming required the involvement of employees from different levels of the company hierarchy, which brought less formality into the office and worked out like magic.
The idea seems pretty simple. Four rules to follow and then all genius ideas start falling out of the sky. Nothing is ever as simple as that and not every company is a believer of brainstorming as a group creativity technique. You will be amazed by how emotional people get when it comes to brainstorming. Do some “googling” and you will find such titles as “A heap of useless nonsense”, “Love or Hate Brainstorm” etc.
We, at Lab8, believe in brainstorming as a good tool within the concept of service design. To avoid misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misuse of this great ideation technique, please, consider these four following tips:
- Brainstorming Requires Preparations
The participants should be in the problem context and a facilitator needs to be assigned to lead the ideation process.
- Extroverted vs Introverted Members
There are always different personalities, some, more dominant than others in the group and this affects the ideation process. For example, at Google Ventures this is avoided by limiting the presentation of the members’ ideas to the sketches and voting silently, thus minimising the personality impact.
- Avoid Social Loafing
When working in a team, we automatically tend to minimize our efforts and do not perform at our best because we partly rely on other members. Some claim that individual brainstorming is more effective while the process of filtering and choosing the best ideas is more productive within a group.
Give the group some time to think individually or even better to continue the process the next day. Experienced brainstormers believe in giving the brief at least a day before the brainstorm as most problem solving is done by the unconscious mind, which needs sleep and time to do its thing.
- Losing Good Ideas During the Process
It is very common to switch from one topic to another during active discussions and thus lose focus. Somebody should be appointed to keep track of all ideas emerging during a conversation without (important!) starting the filtering process. Do not underestimate the power of the post-it notes which service designers are so proudly utilising. So far, they have proved to be the easiest way to record ideas during brainstorming sessions.
You reap what you sow
Osborn’s principles of brainstorming are still very much in use these days but often with some variations.
Even though brainstorming is typically done in teams, it can be conducted on an individual basis as well. Furthermore, brainstorming has contributed to an array of problem-solving techniques such as brainwriting, Brainsketching, bodystorming, role storming, electronic brainstorming, Brain-netting, reverse brainstorming.
Every company adapt their own way of brainstorming. For example, IDEA added 3 more rules; stay focused on the topic, one conversation at a time and be visual. They also suggest preparation by warming up exercises. The senior editor of Forbes emphasizes the importance of individual input. The former manager at Microsoft and WordPress.com, Scott Berkun, recommends to match each session with a new goal and to define deliverables for the next meeting. Similar principles are described in the book “Sprint” by Zeratsky and Kowitz who created a guide for finding and testing new solutions based on the brainstorming experience at Google Ventures.
In conclusion, the effectiveness of brainstorming depends on the way the technique is applied. Practising the technique and testing different methods helps you find your way to improve the result.