It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to be always right by having no ideas at all — Edward de Bono
Is there a way to think more freely, be creative, collaborate, and develop amazing ideas that would lead to cutting-edge innovation? There is and it is called Brainstorming! I am writing this article after encountering countless examples of bad brainstorming efforts. Admittedly, I was not very good at this myself, until I was reintroduced to it in the context of Design Thinking.
Brainstorming In Personal Life
Until a few months back I did not realize how a structured approach to brainstorming can be incredibly effective in deciding on a career of choice. My partner, who is a doctor, was finding it hard to decide on which fellowship would be right for her. Doctors are split into two categories — general physicians and specialists. Fellowship training is part of the process of becoming a specialist. It requires a few years of intense academic and clinical training. The decision on which choosing the right fellowship is even more challenging when you take into account family, kids, long-term career satisfaction, and work-life balance.
It is hard to tell what the future is in store for us and how the decisions we make today will affect us in the long run. However, in an attempt to make an educated guess, we decided to try a well-known brainstorming technique called Mind-mapping.
While mind-mapping, we followed the mechanics of the technique and paid attention to the patterns and themes emerging from the activity. We started with the goal at the center of the page, gradually built the branches detailing the whys, and branched out further into the hows.
Build Your Creative Confidence: Mindmaps
Generally, the first set of ideas that branch from the center will feel cliched or obvious. That happens to everyone…
We went broad and explored all possible paths. The activity allowed us to brainstorm in a structured manner and helped us uncover some unexpected ways to achieve personal and professional life balance. I am happy to report that we did end up with a fellowship option that would meet all our needs. My partner will be pursuing a Pediatric Pulmonary fellowship soon!
Brainstorming At Work
Next, I am sharing a successful brainstorming activity from my professional life. I manage a couple of product development teams at work. For 2021 we had an objective of increasing user engagement. It was not very clear as to how to best go about it. Hence we decided to brainstorm with the team. Here is how we went about it —
- We created a Padlet board for the team for ideas. The team members were allowed to comment and like each other’s ideas. They had a few days for this activity.
- The team was instructed to go as broad and wide with their ideas as possible, with no judgment, no limits. Next, I facilitated a 30-minute session where the team voted on the ideas on the Padlet board. The voting process was to filter the ideas to the most valuable and viable ones.
- The second step resulted in just a few ideas that we could pursue further. The selected ideas were discussed with stakeholders to check how willing the business was to sponsor some of those.
- After stakeholder alignment, we had a few ideas that the engineering team could take on. However, an idea at this point is just an assumption, an assumption that when implemented could result in greater user engagement.
- Finally, we prioritized the assumptions/ideas and implemented experiments (work that required short effort investment). The outcome of the experiments were measurable signals that let us determine if we are truly increasing user engagement.
I have found that a structured approach as described above is much better suited to brainstorming in a professional environment than an unplanned meeting. I am happy to report that we were indeed able to validate and implement some of our ideas that would increase user engagement!
Is Brainstorming a Waste Of Time?
When I was researching this article, to my surprise, I found plenty of academic and industry references that state that Brainstorming with a group of people is not worth the time and effort. Here is a meta-analytic review of research that shows that productivity is lost in brainstorming groups. Here is an article published in The New Yorker that talks about the empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming techniques performed at Yale University. Here is an excerpt from the article —
The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative.
In stark contrast to the above criticism of Brainstorming, IDEO has successfully adopted and implemented brainstorming in their Design Thinking process. IDEO is a leading design firm that champions Human-Centered Design to create beautiful and useful products and solve business problems. This is an excerpt from IDEO’s page -
Brainstorming is an activity that will help you generate more innovative ideas. It’s one of many methods of ideation — the process of coming up with new ideas — and it’s core to the design thinking process. IDEO has honed this process over 40 years to help teams and organizations come up with new-to-the-world solutions rooted in customer needs. It’s a skill that you can build within your team and organization to help bring new ideas to life.
My Thoughts on Brainstorming
As you can see, there is considerable debate over the effectiveness of group brainstorming. When it comes to things like frameworks, methods, practices, and techniques, I think of them as tools in my toolbox to solve a problem. Brainstorming is just another tool for ideation, getting consensus from stakeholders, and foster collaboration in the process. The things that can make brainstorming effective are as follows -
- Facilitation: Collaboration happens when two or more people work together to accomplish something. Unfortunately, most Brainstorming sessions are not efforts in collaboration but mere information and opinion exchange between people. Facilitation is needed to make sure that real collaboration happens.
- Prework: To have an effective session, there has to be some prework and preparation. The prework involves setting the stage up for brainstorming by — explaining the cardinal rules of the activity, letting people know beforehand what we are brainstorming about, setting up virtual or non-virtual boards for posting ideas, and so on.
- Brainwriting: I have found it useful to let the team come up with ideas before we do a brainstorming session. In a professional environment, I usually create a virtual board and let the team put in ideas, feed off each other’s thoughts and ideas by commenting and liking. This allows individuals to think and ponder over an idea before getting into a group activity.
- Divergent thinking: When team members are individually putting up ideas, I strongly encourage them to ‘go broad’. No idea is off-limits at this point! The Padlet brainstorming board is usually filled with a lot of good ideas. If it is a mindmap then, the participant is encouraged to think broadly about things that could lead to a goal. The focus is on quantity and quality at this point.
- Convergent thinking: The final step of a facilitated brainstorming session is convergence. When thinking convergently, we are thinking critically to select the right answer from the options available. While mind mapping this was the last stage where my partner shifted from having a divergent mindset to converging on the best path that could provide a fruitful fellowship option. Similarly, at work, after team members put their ideas on Padlet, we conducted a 30-minute session to narrow down the choices by evaluating the ideas through the lens of engineering viability and customer desirability.
Any technique, pattern, or practice is only as good as its practitioner. The application of a technique cannot be generalized. Hopefully, I was able to illustrate that when brainstorming techniques are correctly facilitated and applied in the context of a business or personal life problems, they not only can result in a quality ideation process but they can uncover opportunities and possibilities that would have otherwise been missed.