Beware of Brainstorming

How often in business have you heard the clarion call ‘let’s have a brainstorm!’?

Whenever there is a project, an opportunity or – more likely-  a crisis, these are the words bosses use to stimulate action. Words that signal the boss has decided she cannot, or chooses not to, solve the problem herself. Words that also reveal that she’s not sure how to get others started!

One definition proclaims brainstorming to be a spontaneous group discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems. But the traditional English usage of the word is very different: a moment in which one is suddenly unable to think clearly or act sensibly. Example: “We can only assume that the train driver had a brainstorm and forgot to apply the brakes.’

Which is closer to the brainstorming experiences you have had?

The reality is that the business brainstorm usually gathers a group of people who are unprepared and in some cases unwilling to participate. The unpreparedness is significant because it means that most brainstorming sessions simply gather existing knowledge. Along with that knowledge comes a bundle of negativity borne of experience: “We tried that five years ago and failed.”

One hour later you have exhausted the knowledge and interest of the group, and have tabled little that will help to address the problem.

I have no issue with the idea of gathering a group to solve a problem. Endeavour is a collective activity; business is driven by human interaction; and two heads are surely better than one. But what we are talking about needs more thoughtful preparation, or the chemistry will simply not work.

Brainstorming requires that you generate an air of freshness around the exercise. Choose participants not for their technical knowledge or the fact that they are ‘responsible’ for a situation. Add other people who, by their attitude, are likely to contribute new ideas. Who, because they aren’t ‘implicated’ in a situation, are likely to be objective.

Choose a location that opens up possibilities. Take the group outside, or into your banking hall or to a busy cafe. Natural vistas, customer behaviours and people watching all trigger new perspectives. Rarely does a great idea come from a windowless meeting room.

Create safety. Better still create a sense of fun. Remember Einstein’s dictum: ‘ Creativity is intelligence having fun.’ And encourage your people to challenge norms without risk of retribution. This is much harder than it sounds, and certainly not something a boss can easily mandate. But if the sacred cows are not put away in the barn, they will end up pulling the cart.