Brainstorm devastates small community. Leaders weep.

August 15, 2008 in Notes from the Field

Forecasters predicted last week that a Category 5 Brainstorm would sweep through the halls of a local community of business people just south of making their quarterly numbers. Unfortunately nobody heard the warnings and many were left unprepared for the tragic loss of useful thinking that resulted. One observer from a nearby cubicle farm noted, “It was almost like they asked for it. As if they thought that some sort of rain dance performed by a shaman could bring a crop of new ideas. Instead they were swamped in a sea of sludge.”

“All we heard was Bruce and that single minded idea of his and then it all turned dark. I lost everything!” A dismayed wallflower cried as she was led away to a local bar.

Barb from HR was discovered hanging for dear life onto an excel spreadsheet filled with missing attendees. She whispered, “They told us there were no dumb ideas or stupid people and then they broke out the Nerf bow and arrow, how could they have possibly imagined that Playdoh and Nerf could save us from Bruce? He’s actually quite stupid and his ideas were horrible. But no, his manager insisted he be there. All we could do was sit by and watch as our productivity crumbled to our feet.”

Ok, I thought that I was supposed to write an Onion article, not an Opinion article. Either way it highlights something that’s been on my mind of late. We occasionally get called in to participate in a traditional brainstorming session as practiced in the halls of corporations. Unfortunately all too often the only thing that traditional design houses or meeting facilitators have to offer is (sometimes) smart or charismatic people and a grab bag of old wives tales about how to get ideas out of groups. The horror stories naturally follow. They have pretty agendas and dynamic speakers but at the end of the day instead of having a large pool of really breakthrough initiatives you end up with a handful of fairly obvious first ideas dressed up as “solutions” and a bitter taste in your mouth. I don’t blame the well meaning leader who called up one of these so-called shamans for help. Companies have a real need to get good ideas out of groups of people. What depresses me the most is that there are better ways to drive group-based thinking. You don’t have to succumb to the madness of the crowds and the mediocrity that results from corporate brainstorm meetingitis.

A few tips:

  • If the brainstorming moderator says there are no dumb ideas, you are in trouble because there are really dumb ideas, often the first idea you have is obvious and might be dumb. The point actually is that ideas are dead easy, don’t sweat if you have to throw away a bunch, there are plenty more in everyone’s heads.
  • If you can’t (or don’t want to) write the Harvard Business Review success story about the output from a session, you are in trouble. Most ideas aren’t stories, just a grab bag of features. Stories inspire.
  • If they have you go around the room and “throw out” ideas during the early part of the day to “limber up,” you’re in trouble. This approach pretty much guarantees that the loud mouth will win and the shrinking violet will shrink. Not only that, it basically “averages” everyone’s state of mind together very early in the process and we all know what sort of gray, middling things come from averaging too early in any process (the word means the middle point or typical answer and actually comes from the French avarie and refers to damaged merchandise on a ship and how to distribute it).

MAYA has been practicing the science of group-based innovation for over 18 years in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the crushing uselessness of so-called brainstorming techniques. In our efforts to evolve the haphazard way in which ideas are generated, explored, tested, refined, and evangelized we’ve developed a theory of group innovation that is more like a mixture of cognitive hacks, market dynamics and evolutionary principles.

Unfortunately the margins of this page are too small for me to write out our entire formula but if you’ve seen any warning signs of an impending storm, you should contact us.

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