When Brainstorming Goes Bad

You sit down in the “blue sky” room. Everyone knows the rules:

  • Anything goes
  • No judging
  • This is all about idea generation

And so you begin:

You: Thanks everyone for coming. I think this should be quite simple. We just need some ideas about implementing some software to track system bugs.

Person A: OK. Maybe the splash screen should show bugs…you know…insects and things.

Person B: Yeah. Maybe we should develop a PDA in the shape of a ladybird. That would be cool

Person C: It could change colour depending on how many unfixed bugs there are.

Three hours pass.

Person Z: And then, like, a solar powered laser beam could project a mind map onto the walls.

You (probably internally): Argggghhhhhhhh

OK. I’m exaggerating. But it isn’t uncommon for brainstorming to achieve nothing more than the generation of sub-standard and unusable ideas. The December 2007 Harvard Business Review printed an article titled “Breakthrough Thinking from Inside the Box” that explains why:

Most people are not very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming. More often than not, the facilitator will say, “There are no bad ideas,” which only compounds the confusion. Without some guidance, people cannot judge whether they should continue in the direction of their first notion or change direction altogether.

Another problem with formal brainstorming is that it can actually hurt general creativity within your team as discussed by John McKee in Don’t go on a diet. And don’t use brainstorming meetings.

So how do you foster creativity within your team whilst at the same time avoiding these pitfalls. I think there are three keys to this:

Anyone can have an idea at any time

Many people find it hard to be creative on-demand. However by contrast most people regularly have new ideas, creative thoughts and novel ways of looking at things. Rather than scheduling “brainstorming sessions” you should aim to create an environment where people feel able to express their creativity whenever it comes to them.

When I first started work for a large IT consultancy as a new graduate I was lucky enough to join a small team that encouraged input from anyone about anything. Even as a new recruit I felt able to challenge the views of and communicate my ideas to managers, developers and technical architects (all of whom had many more years of experience behind them than I did). This doesn’t mean that they agreed with everything I said. But my lack of rank or experience were never used as reasons for dismissing my input. To my mind this is a key factor: anyone should be able to contribute ideas and each idea should be evaluated based on merit rather than who suggested it.

Take craziness in small doses

Sometimes it is useful top have a no-holds-barred anything-goes brainstorming session. But you must control the length of time spent on this and treat it as only one step in a process that must then lead on to the discarding of bad ideas and the further development of good ones. David Allan touched on this in his book Getting Things Done (that I recently reviewed) when he said:

It’s important that brainstorming be put into the overall context of the planning process, because if you think you’re doing it just for it’s own sake , it can seem trite and inappropriately off course. If you can understand it instead as something you’re doing right now, for a certain period, before you move toward a resolution at the end, you’ll feel more comfortable giving this part of the process its due

Add structure to idea generation

Adding structure to an idea generation session often, rather than stifling creativity, allows more and better ideas to be produced. This is certainly a theme in the Harvard Business Review’s article “Breakthrough Thinking from Inside The Box” which included a list of 21 questions you can use to provoke useful discussion. My favourites were:

  • Who spends at least 50% of what our product costs to adapt it to their specific needs?
  • Who uses our product in ways we never expected or intended?
  • What is the biggest hassle of using or purchasing our product?
  • Which customers’ needs are shifting most rapidly? What will they be in five years?

I have used a similar technique when gathering ideas for product enhancements from users. If you ask “What new features would you like?” you will often get very little response. But ask “What is difficult about using our software at the moment?” or “What 3 things do you do most frequently and how could we make them easier?” and suddenly the same users become a gold-mine of product improvement ideas.


1 comment so far

  1. SoftwareSweatshop on

    Why not have a reverse brainstorming session based on the refinement principle?

    Brainstorm stupid ideas that will never work and discuss WHY so you can incrementally work to something that actually is worthwhile.

    There’s a discipline called Triz Innovation that is a supposed ‘structured’ way to promote creativity and innovation. It starts by taking a vexing problem and figuring out all of the solutions that WON’T work.

    I sat next to a guy on a plane a few years ago and he explained the entire thing to me. It was pretty interesting…

    Raza Imam

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