Innovation #2 - Brainstorming isn’t Just Guessing
In the world of innovation, few things are more misunderstood than brainstorming.
Popular culture paints this picture.
Leader: “Hey everybody, today we’re going to tackle [some big challenge]. Let’s hear some ideas!”
Everybody: Immediately excitedly yell multiple brilliant solutions.
That’s not how it works. That vague question just invites guesses and usually results in dead silence or really vague answers that probably just restate the problem.
Preparation is a Necessary Part of Brainstorming
“We’re going to tackle [some big challenge]” seems on its face to be focused, but in reality it is not. The team may know little or nothing about that particular challenge. They may not even understand it at all. Unless by chance they’ve experienced the challenge in depth, they really have just a superficial understanding of it, and they probably lack enough knowledge to propose any informed solution.
The first step in brainstorming should always be to immerse the team in the challenge. They need to understand its depth and nuance. Ideally, this is done directly when the team interviews and observes people who deal with the challenge. Less ideally, the team can be briefed by those who did directly interview and observe those facing the challenge.
Now the team can focus on the actual challenge, rather than make guesses based on a superficial understanding.
Framing the Right Questions
Once you are immersed in the challenge, you will notice that it is not just one challenge, but a combination of various smaller challenges (all big challenges are). It may be composed of numerous physical, mental, and emotional elements. Some may be complementary and can be grouped together. Some may be (or at least seem) contradictory and can also be grouped together [note: brainstorming can solve seemingly contradictory or seemingly impossible challenges, but that is a topic for another day].
By focusing brainstorming questions on smaller parts of the challenge, the team leverages its ability to focus. By converting the challenge from one question to multiple questions (8 to 12 is about right) about different aspects of the same main challenge, the team creates an inventory of ideas that can be combined in clever ways to form multiple integrated solutions to the main challenge.
If you merely ask the team for ideas to solve the whole main challenge, they face too many degrees of freedom. Not knowing where to start produces silence or vague answers. Break it down for them and their job becomes easier.
Framing Questions in the Right Way
Merely asking the team to spout ideas doesn’t give them any guidance for the kind of answers you want. You want tangible, real solutions for the challenge - not vague non-actionable thoughts. Ask for ideas that explain HOW to address the challenge, not just WHAT to address. Our challenge already expressed WHAT we want to address. No reason to reiterate it.
You want many different ideas. Ask the team to produce as many ideas as they can. Give them permission to write or sketch anything that comes into their heads. letting their creative instinct run free. Tell them you expect silly ideas. Maybe even give a prize for the silliest.
With a large diverse inventory of solution ideas to choose from, the team is more likely to combine some of them into a killer integrated solution to the whole main challenge. That’s your last step of any ideation session - letting each team member combine their favorite individual solutions (from everyone’s - not just their own) into a fully integrated solution (for example, an entire new product, service, or process). The more ideas you have to play with, the better your integrated solution.
Brainstorming Fuses Analytical and Elastic Thinking
Let’s simplify definitions by saying that analytical thinking assumes there is a right or best answer while elastic thinking assumes there can be many answers. Calculation versus creativity.
Understanding the facts comprising the main challenge is mostly an analytical pursuit.
Creating the right questions to ask your brainstorming team also uses analytical thinking, while choosing how to combine challenges may also exercise the creativity of elastic thinking.
Answering those questions with multiple unfiltered solutions, however, exclusively engages your brainstorming team’s elastic thinking.
Building an ideal integrated solution requires a subtle combination of both, creatively combining ideas in a way that leads to a version of right or best.
Selecting, as project leader, what you believe is the best integrated solution to move forward brings you back to analytical thinking. Adding in some ideas from the also-ran solutions can use a bit of both kinds of thinking.
So, during the course of a brainstorming project, you will change your team’s approach from analytical to elastic thinking a few times. It is important for you to ensure that they know what sort of thinking you expect at each point.