Brainstorming notion awash with flaws

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The brainstorming meeting — one of the biggest time wasters and consulting hoaxes foisted on western civilization in the past century. An over-the-top statement? Just a little.

“Push the envelope” and “think outside the box” are overused tropes that do little to generate new ideas. But they are irritating.

The half-day brainstorming meeting gives the illusion that something was accomplished.

I have been in eight-hour meetings with 20 or more participants. A month later no one could say what was accomplished.

The term “brainstorming” originated in 1948 by Alex Osborn in his book “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas”. Osborn believed that when many brains “storm towards a goal” with a quantity of ideas, creativity is unleashed and big ideas are generated.

Focus on quantity of ideas, don’t worry about their quality and criticism isn’t allowed. That’s brainstorming in a nutshell.

Is there good evidence that these brainstorming meetings are effective?

If you do a simple “brainstorming” search on the internet you will find people selling brainstorming software and techniques for better and more effective brainstorming.

You will also find another group that is highly critical of brainstorming and they are armed with some compelling studies to show that brainstorming meetings are not very effective.

“Group Think; the Brainstorming Myth,” by Jonah Lehrer (The New Yorker, January 30, 2012), summarizes the results of many tests performed to compare brainstorming to other methods of idea generation.

In 1958 a study at Yale University showed that students working individually produced nearly twice as many ideas as students working in brainstorming groups — and their ideas were judged as more feasible.

In 2003 a University of California, Berkeley, study found that teams debating and critiquing ideas created more usable ideas than the groups following standard brainstorming protocol.

Good news for all of us who don’t want to pretend that all ideas are worthy of serious consideration.

Don’t mistake my disdain for brainstorming with a dislike of ideas, suggestions or critiques from employees, co-workers, or customers.

On the contrary — a good idea or a solution to a problem is always welcome. Criticism isn’t enjoyable, but I would rather have people point out flaws and give me a chance to fix them than criticize me behind my back.

How can you get ideas without scheduling a brainstorming meeting?

You can informally solicit ideas and suggestions from anyone who will give you five minutes to lay out your goal or problem.

Speak to them in person or send out an email; tell them you value their opinion and would appreciate some input.

Not everyone will come back with an idea, but if they are given a bit of time to think it over most people will respond with an idea or suggestion and some will be better than others.

If you want a more formal approach and enjoy meetings, consider a modified version of brainstorming.

First, define the issue, problem or goal. What are you trying to achieve? Don’t skip over this lightly and head right to solutions. Everyone needs a complete picture of what the issue is.

If you want to solve a quality or customer service problem then you need to examine the problem from all perspectives — from customers as well as the employees and managers from all affected departments.

If you want to come up with a new or improved product or marketing idea then outline the goal and put some structure around it before asking people to submit ideas.

Are there budget or time limits? What is this new product or marketing idea expected to do? Do you have some criteria in place that you will use to evaluate the submitted ideas?

Once you have outlined the goal and discussed all of the particulars it is time to let people think, and most of us can’t think up ideas on command.

We need time to let things simmer a bit. Some people may want to get together and work as a team while others do better on their own.

Give people a time limit to submit their ideas. A week should suffice for most things. Based on the level of trust and camaraderie in the group, you may want to transcribe the submissions into a common format that won’t identify submitters when their ideas are presented to the group.

Ideally submitters can present their own ideas and respond to questions you can ask people to send their ideas to you and you will transcribe them into a common format for presentation to the group and keep the submitters identities secret or they can present their ideas at the next meeting.

Develop some criteria to screen out or reduce the number of options by using a straw vote method, and when things are narrowed down to a couple of good ideas then begin evaluating each alternative based on all critical factors: cost, feasibility, aesthetics, etc.

The key is to allow people to think at a time and in a place that works best for them. No storming needed for good ideas.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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