Improve brainstorming | The Economist

Jhe word “brainstorming” evokes a vision of hell. It’s someone who says, “Turn on the brainwave barbecue.” He desperately tries to figure out where everyone else’s cursors are on a digital whiteboard. It’s hearing the line “there are no bad ideas” and thinking “how was this programmed then?” »

Still, the brainstorming persists, and for good reason. Normal routines leave employees with little time to think. Bringing a group of people together is an opportunity to tap into disparate viewpoints. Producing, filtering and selecting new ideas efficiently is an attractive proposition. So why is brainstorming often so painful?

The problem is that brainstorming must balance a series of competing imperatives. A tension is between creativity and feasibility. Brainstorming is meant to be liberating, a chance to ask original questions (like, “Wouldn’t it be great if people had prosthetic tails?”). But it’s also meant to produce suggestions that can actually be translated into reality, which calls for a more pragmatic style of thinking (like, “What are you talking about? We work at a salad chain.”).

Research in 2017 found that different types of ideas emerge at different stages of brainstorming. The most feasible suggestions were generated early in the brainstorming sessions, probably because they were also more obvious, and the more original ones came later. Both types are likely to produce a “what’s the point?” » reaction of the participants: incrementalism is not exciting, wild projects lead nowhere.

A second tension is between managers and non-managers. By its nature, brainstorming is internal. Someone has to organize the session, and that person is often the manager of a team. If the decision makers are not in the room, the suspicion will grow that time is wasted. If so, then hierarchies easily assert themselves: good ideas can wither away with a frown from the boss, and bad ones can survive with a nod.

A related issue concerns the presence of strangers. There’s a natural temptation to keep tapping into the same senior executives within an organization to generate ideas: they’re the ones who get things done, who understand a company’s strategy.

Yet, plenty of research suggests that strangers bring a new perspective. They can be people from related industries: in a 2013 experiment, carpenters, roofers and in-line skaters were asked how to improve safety equipment in all their fields and the most innovative ideas came from people who were not in the area in question. But they can also be middle managers or front-line employees who have direct contact with customers.

A third balance to strike is between different personalities and different thinking styles. A new paper from researchers at Columbia Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business reveals that Zoom brainstorming comes at a cost to creativity: As people’s visual focus shrinks on the screen in front of them, their range cognitive also seems to become more limited. But while in-person gatherings are better, they don’t work as well for everyone. Some personalities are immediately comfortable speaking their minds; others need to be persuaded to share their opinions.

These are known issues and there are plenty of ideas to fix them. The problem is that many of them feel like they themselves were the product of a bad brainstorming session. “Figure-storming” is a way for people to combat groupthink by impersonating a famous person (“how would the queen improve cloud computing?”). “Staggering” involves people joining a brainstorm one at a time, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Breaking the ice by tossing a word association ball at each other is a brilliant idea if you’re having a ten-year-old birthday party.

Some simpler rules are much more likely to help. Define the parameters of a brainstorming session from the start. Try to make a specific thing work better rather than aiming for the Moon. Involve people you don’t know, as well as people you know. Start by getting people to write down their ideas in silence, so extroverts and bosses are less likely to dominate. And be clear about the next steps after the session ends; the appeal of organizing a “design sprint”, a clear and simple one-week way for a team to develop and test product prototypes, is that the thread connecting ideas to results is tight. All of which would make brainstorming a little more stimulating and a little less nauseating.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
The woolliest words in business (May 14)
Why Working From Anywhere Isn’t Realistic (May 7)
The case for Easter eggs and other delicacies (April 30)

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