Connie Williams, CMO & CKO, Synecticsworld

By Connie Williams

I went to an innovation process conference recently and was treated to a demonstration of traditional brainstorming by two excellent speaker/presenters.  A group of about 150 people were divided into teams of around 15 to 20, assigned one member as a facilitator, provided with some guidelines (get ideas fast, say out loud, no evaluating ideas, etc.) given post it notes and sharpies and asked to do 10 minutes of idea generation around a topic of general interest to the participants.

This was traditional “brainstorming”, but what does “brainstorming” really mean today?  As a facilitator who has conducted thousands of ideation sessions using what I consider to be an Invention approach with a high likelihood of breakthrough new ideas, I am always faced with the question of when is “brainstorming” not “Brainstorming”.

The “brainstorming” word was coined by Alex Osborne, the “O” in the firm of BBD&O to help his advertising agency’s writers and art directors be more creative using group thinking techniques.  The term caught wider usage with the publication of his book, Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving in 1953.  Key aspects of the technique include going for quantity of ideas, withholding evaluation, welcoming unusual ideas and combining ideas to improve them.  (Writing the ideas on Post it, with sharpies and then speaking and posting the ideas on a board in the room, obviously, came later!)

When it came time for questions and comments after the experience, many attendees in the room acknowledged that they, too, used brainstorming in their firms, but comments were made as to its shortcomings:  for many it was not yielding really new, breakthrough ideas, participants tended to pick the ideas they already knew how to do rather than really fresh ideas and that it was difficult to offer ideas and listen to ideas to build at the same time.

Synecticsworld’s founders actually met and compared notes with Osborne and then developed the Synectics Process to get more speculative ideas.

So, if you are looking for breakthrough, go deeper.  If you are running your own brainstorming sessions, here are a few techniques to get you there:

  • First, change up the rhythms of idea generation – individual quiet time, group speed dating, paired exercises, in addition to fast public ideation.  Variety helps the extroverts and the introverts and those in between all to make contributions within their own styles.  The classic brainstorming technique tends to work best for extroverts.
  • Use metaphor and analogy to push out thinking – ask the group to generate ideas using language that expresses their idea in other (non literal) terms.  I want it to be ‘like’ ….XX.
  • Generate wacky, weird and absurd ideas to address the issue without worrying about do-ability.  How do you get absurdity?  Making new connections with seemingly irrelevant stimulus.  And, you have to have an environment that makes offering a silly idea comfortable.
  • This one is key:  When it comes time to pick an idea, you are only halfway there.  Choose a far-out idea that you don’t know how to do but is intriguing.  Say why it’s intriguing.  Then spend time with the group and work with them to hold on to the positive aspects while you buildfeasibility.  In the process, the idea will morph into something more feasible but still new and intriguing.  At Synectics, we call this developmental thinking and believe it is a key to more intriguing, breakthrough ideas.

Of course there are lots of other considerations – ways to build trust so that people can offer crazy ideas, learning how to develop ideas more effectively, helping people get more creative using other mental “excursion” material, and the like.  But using these techniques should help break some of the connections that keep us in conventional thinking and result in safe, incremental ideas.  Let these suggestions be a start to better “brainstorming” for your organization.


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