13 problems with brainstorming

How do you get ideas at work? The only method that really works, according to many people, involves Starbucks. Others mention brainstorming.

Brainstorming has been around since the 1930’s, but it’s far from perfect. What are the problems? Well, let’s brainstorm:

Bad name. “Brain-storm” sounds painful. Which would you rather do, brainstorm, or play golf? I don’t even play golf, but it still sounds more appealing.

I realize that the item we’re on now, #2, isn’t really an item at all, but that’s what happens when you start brainstorming.

Back to the bad name. Let’s check the dictionary. Brainstorm means “a violent fit of insanity.” Golf may mean the same thing, but golf sounds better.

“Your first 94 ideas could be silly, stupid or completely harebrained—that’s good!—quantity leads to quality.” Those are standard instructions when you prep a group to brainstorm.

The problem is that some people don’t want to say anything that’s silly, stupid or completely harebrained.

Brainstorming requires individuals to be good at blurting. That means you can’t carefully monitor what you say. You can’t have a vigilant, internal editor.

Your internal editor needs to be out-to-lunch, half-asleep, or heavily medicated, and therefore, perfectly willing to let a lot of crazy stuff fly right out of your mouth.

Not everyone operates like that. Do you prefer to talk before you think? You’re probably brilliant at blurting. Talking may be the way you think.

On the other hand, you could be the sort of person who thinks first, talks later (or remains silent), in which case, blurting is not your long suit.

I once worked with a group of senior executives who were quiet and reflective. We’d gather for a retreat to identify the next year’s critical priorities, and I’d say, “Why don’t we brainstorm?”

Dead silence.

A year later, I tried the same thing. Dead silence.

Then I tried brain-writing, a first cousin of brainstorming—except there’s no blurting. In fact, no one is allowed to talk. Each person writes ideas on post-it notes and then sticks them on a wall.

Within minutes, we had 30 ideas. (Then we talked).

What does all this mean?

Tip: To get new ideas, vary your approach. Don’t assume that what works for you will work for others. Try brainstorming. Try brain-writing. Try Starbucks.

©Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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