Now that the pandemic is settling in for a longer run than expected, many businesses are having to shift from let’s wait this out to what do we do now? Some organizations have the option of simply delivering their existing goods through different channels—drive-thru service or patio dining for restaurants—but if your company is more complicated than burgers and fries, it is time to get serious about creative options. That led me to dust off some old tips about brainstorming.
Most brainstorming sessions are at best, unproductive or, at worst, exercises in frustration and futility. The fault lies in following out-of-dates methods. Individuals have been shown to be every bit as capable as teams at developing creative, workable solutions. So, why have teams brainstorm in the first place? The answer is, groups can create a higher volume of ideas in the same period of time, and when a group creates a solution together, there is greater buy-in; the idea is implemented with more enthusiasm than if the solution is handed down from on high.
The goal of brainstorming is twofold; a high volume of ideas, and creative breadth. Creativity is measured by how far away from the norm an idea is. The best way to achieve both conditions might surprise you; debate. Most people have been taught that brainstorming is only possible if team members follow the rule that every idea is a good idea. This rule goes back decades. Alex Osborne, and advertising executive in the 1940s wanted to codify the methods used by his staff when developing creative advertising campaign. Upon observation, he noted that his team seemed to be more productive when they agreed with each other. So, he formed the every idea is a good idea rule, and we all believed the rule to be gospel truth. The problem is Osborne didn’t test his assumption. When the rule was researched recently, it turns out that Osborne was only partly right. The first obstacle to the rule is, it is impossible to treat every idea as a good one, because some ideas stink. To agree with a stinky idea is disingenuous, which destroys the trust of the team. Teams can’t create if they don’t trust each other. Second, agreeing with every idea shuts down the critical thinking centers of the brain. We have all been in meetings where the leader said, “Every idea is a good one. Who has one?” The very notion causes uncomfortable silence because it is saying, in a sense, “Leave your brain at the door.”
When groups were used to test the brainstorming process, a third of the teams were told to agree with every idea presented, another third was told to debate each idea on its merits and defects, while the final third (the control group) was told to employ no rules at all. The group that had the highest volume and most creative ideas was the debating group. The next most productive was the control group. Surprisingly, the least productive group was the one that agreed with everything.
Osborne was correct in recognizing that bluntly telling someone that their idea is stupid will shut down new ideas, inhibit group participation, and destroy productivity. So yes, we should avoid completely blasting someone’s idea. But respectful debate does the opposite. If I think someone’s idea is unworkable, and I say, “Charlene, I just don’t see how we can make that work. Tell me why you think it is a good idea,” it invites my team member to dig further into her idea. If my challenge is an invitation to mix it up, mentally, it sparks creative thinking; not only in Charlene’s brain, but in the rest of the team’s brains as well. The act of Charlene defending her idea causes greater brain activity in the group.
The only way for this to work is to recognize the difference between argument and debate. An argument is a back-and-forth It won’t work, Yes, it will test of wills. The winner is usually the one with more authority. For debate to be productive, it must be robust and respectful. During brainstorming, workplace hierarchy must be suspended. In fact, sometimes having more experience in a field prevents examining a issue creatively. It must be openly acknowledged that everyone must have an opinion, whether positive or negative. And, if Tim from the sales department is always shooting down others’ ideas, some people are just not wired to think up new ideas. However, if Tim is told that he can still be critical, but now must do it in a way that sparks healthy debate, you access Tim’s talents without sacrificing every else’s. A good leader guides the process and keeps debate productive. If a team member says, “That will never work,” the leader must ask why. Keep digging until the answer sparks even more debate. Now go do what hasn’t been done yet.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.