When Brainstorming Goes Bad

Fruitless sessions are a clear sign that your company isn't doing idea generation the right way.

By Michael Myser, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- The mere mention of brainstorming elicits a lot of eye rolling in most offices. But here's a little secret: Much of what's called brainstorming isn't brainstorming at all. "Nowadays, brainstorming could mean a discussion, a debate, or a wild idea," says Scott Isaksen, founder of the Creative Problem Solving Group in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's an abused, misused term."

Most often, modern brainstorming involves a group of people sitting around a conference room, staring into space, and waiting for ideas to come. But in its true form, it's a rigidly structured process.

The term was coined by Alex Osborn, the founder of advertising firm BBDO (Charts), in his 1953 book Applied Imagination, which laid out strict protocols and cited a barrage of academic research proving that groups could generate up to 44 percent more ideas than individuals.

A number of studies have since reinforced the more formal approach, but most corporations still tend to be very haphazard when it comes to idea generation; Isaksen estimates that just 4 percent of companies actually know what they're doing.

Here are the three mistakes that cripple brainstorming.

No trained facilitator. One of the key tenets of Osborn's approach is assigning a trained facilitator to guide the sessions. But most corporate brainstorming is led by someone who has little understanding of the process or by a manager who has a vested interest in the outcome.

"People are uncomfortable sharing wild ideas in front of their boss," says Daniel Wilson, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. According to a study published by Isaksen last year, groups using a facilitator produced an incredible 600 percent more ideas than those without one (167 vs. 23).

Isaksen suggests training employees in facilitation strategies; several firms, such as Strategic Communications, offer classes on the topic.

Lack of rules. A facilitator is useless without guidelines, but most corporate brainstorming sessions employ a freewheeling style.

"I've seen people bring knitting and their BlackBerrys because they know it will be a waste of time," Isaksen says. Osborn's ground rules in Applied Imagination can provide a good starting point: Criticism and judgment of ideas should be deferred until after the session, and each brainstorm should last no more than 45 minutes.

Most crucial, says Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor of cognition and education, is that the facilitator politely but firmly enforce the guidelines to keep the group from veering off track.

Unprepared participants. When called in response to a crisis, brainstorming sessions typically require participants to start from scratch. But it's better if workers can prepare in advance to get their creative juices flowing.

"Some of the best brainstorming sessions I've been involved in asked me to send my ideas via e-mail before we came together," Wilson says.

If there isn't time to prepare in advance, Isaksen suggests warming up the group on a practice problem to help spark creativity and familiarize the group with the rules. "A good runner doesn't just jump up and start sprinting," Isaksen says. Stretching your brain doesn't hurt either.  Top of page

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