Brainstorming or brainsteering? Or a happy middle ground?

We’ve all been there.  You’re asked to participate in a chaotic exercise billed as a brainstorming session. The moderator instructs you to “think outside the box,” tells you that the activity is penalty free (“no idea is a bad idea”) and then waits expectantly. But without design or instruction, some participants sit there apathetically, others contribute sporadically, and a few loudly dominate the session with their pet ideas.  McKinsey Quarterly recently published an article that proposes some techniques to make brainstorming more effective.

In 7 Steps to Better Brainstorming, the authors propose a modified brainstorming technique they call “brainsteering.”  The key to brainsteering is providing the participants with some context and parameters in order to avoid the “fast, furious and ultimately shallow” ideas generated in traditional brainstorming. For example, they suggest telling participants at the start about the decision-making criteria that will be used to evaluate ideas as well as the context to understand what an acceptable idea is. They warn the reader to “prepare your participants for the likelihood that…. (they) might generate only two or three worthy ideas.”

Steering vs. storming – the happy middle
I agree with some of the comments that expressed discomfort with the steering component of brainsteering because it fundamentally changes the nature of the idea generation from free-form thinking to focused problem solving (both can involve creativity, by the way).

Brainstorming is a form of divergent thinking, meaning that it doesn’t follow a specific path. It occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner, so that the ideas are generated in a rapid, random and unorganized fashion.  A later step is to organize and prioritize them so that the best ideas rise to the top. If you apply constraints to the initial brainstorming, you lose the ability to come at the question from many unique perspectives.

In our practice, we adapt some of the same concepts into what might be called constructive brainstorming. At the heart of constructive brainstorming is a set of good prompts, in the form of questions.  The questions are open-ended invitations to envision possibilities and the scope of the question is what keeps the ideas on topic.  For example “Imagine that our company has just won an award for being “green.” What steps have we taken in order to merit this award” invites open-ended thinking about anything from using re-chargeable batteries to changing suppliers but keeps some focus on the ultimate goal of making a measurable and visible impact.

The second tool we use is electronic brainstorming.  Adding ideas to a common online flipchart allows participants to enter their ideas all at once and anonymously.  It neutralizes the “idea-crushers” (identified in the article as bosses, big-mouths and subject matter experts) and puts everyone a level playing field.  While the article suggests that dividing brainstorming participants into small groups of 5 is an effective approach to resolving negative group dynamics, we find that electronic brainstorming allows us to involve much larger groups of people (30, 40 or 100 is not uncommon), thereby broadening the field of ideas significantly.  The process of entering ideas into a common space, then reading and commenting on everyone else’s ideas sparks a second and arguably more thoughtful round of idea generation.  Finally, the ideas are captured instantly, ready to be organized and prioritized, making the entire process more productive.

Everything comes down to technique and forethought.  As free-form as a brainstorming session is meant to be, its design requires planning, including developing the right set of questions and employing the tools and techniques to engage everyone.

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