Brainstorming Around the World: The Good, The Bad, The Promise
"Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it." -- Cole Porter
Just in case you had any doubts, it seems everybody is doing it - brainstorming, that is. And just how are they doing it? Well, pretty much the same way everywhere.
The SmartStorming partners recently returned from Krakow, Poland, where we conducted our two-day SmartStorming Brainstorm Leadership Workshop at the 2011 Worldwide Partners Creative Summit. And the experience was nothing short of remarkable!
Not only did we meet and work with a group of very smart, talented and engaged professionals, we also learned a thing or two about group dynamics, multiculturalism, problem solving techniques and, of course, brainstorming.
Our workshop participants were marketing agency pros from around the world: Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine. While there were many cultural differences, two things were the same: they all brainstormed on a regular basis and they all faced virtually identical challenges when doing so.
The group clearly viewed brainstorming to be critical business process, and recognized its importance to their organizations. The direct link between brainstorming and the ability to innovate was clear to them.
brainstorming <-> creative problem solving <-> ideas <-> innovation
And so, all were eager to learn how to experience better results when brainstorming with their teams and clients, and were completely open to new and unfamiliar ideas and problem solving techniques.
In her book, The Seeds of Innovation, Elaine Dundon identifies nine problems that are typically encountered with brainstorming as typically practiced.
- Lack of process
- Lack of a skilled facilitator
- Lack of skilled participants
- Listing of rules
- No agreement on the problem
- Lack of stimuli
- Pressure to be creative on queue
- Pressure to converge quickly
- Lack of follow-up
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of these challenges were voiced by the group during our opening discussion about just what causes brainstorms to fail.
The implications of this experience are actually quite compelling, and suggest that regardless of differences in culture, business practices and customs, geography, personality, etc., what takes place in the room when a group of people get together to generate creative ideas, in the absence of a structured process and effective problem solving techniques, is pretty much the same no matter who you are or where you are. And that "pretty much the same" is all-too-often disappointing.
Perhaps most interesting to us at SmartStorming was that there seemed to be very little difference among the participants in terms of just how much direct training or self-directed learning the participants had on the topic of brainstorming. One might imagine that in some countries a greater emphasis would be placed on learning skills to help facilitate this important process. But this was not the case. As we usually find in the U.S., not one participant had experienced any meaningful training in brainstorming or creative problem solving.
The good news is that while brainstorming as typically practiced is clearly broken, it's not all that difficult to fix.
The level of interest, participation and enthusiasm throughout the two-day workshop was very high. Even the most seasoned creative professionals in the group reported exciting revelations, specifically about how to turn "bad" ideas into game-changers; how to minimize shyness and self-consciousness among participants and facilitate spontaneous sharing; how to use different problem solving techniques and brainstorming activities to accomplish different objectives; etc.
And already we are receiving reports from abroad about the participants' first highly successful SmartStorming sessions back at their agencies.
Their brainstorming, it would seem, is fixed.
In the 1930s, when Alex Osborn "invented" brainstorming, he knew, even then, that certain skills and guidelines were necessary for the process to be successful. Many of those are directly related to Elaine Dundon's list of brainstorming challenges. But Osborn's new way of generating ideas was just so novel and exciting, it apparently took off on its own.
The legacy is a world that, today, depends heavily on brainstorming, but really doesn't have a clue how to do it.
But with a little effort and investment of time and attention, Alex Osborn's vision of highly productive ideation sessions quickly becomes a reality. And great ideas are no longer a rarity, they are the norm.