Brainstorming vs. BrainstormingBut

Like there’s Scrum and ScrumBut, most “brainstorming” sessions I ever took part in were BrainstormingBut sessions, instead of true brainstorming. They didn’t adhere to the key rules of a true brainstorming, namely:

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Aim for quantity

Up until I was well into my 20s, every “brainstorming” I had ever participated in, had violated at least the first rule. Sometimes the second rule, also. Those sessions should have been called “listing options” or something akin. When the realization dawned on me that I had never truly brainstormed… Bummer!

But why do you defer judgement in the first place? Why not weed “stupid” ideas out right when they come up?

Turns out, the brain is a tricky beast: Negative feedback of any kind kills creativity and therefore ideas. Turning of the inner judge and to utter a new crazy, off-the-trodden-track idea takes courage! And when someone critizes you for voicing something that you know was far-fetched… Makes you feel stupid. Nothing like feeling stupid to kill creativity…

Even if there were no adverse psychological effects, I often see other bad effects of jumbling the gathering AND culling of ideas into the same step:

  • Less building on the ideas of others
    While a base idea might be unfeasible, it can spark other, more feasible ideas – unless its culled (e.g. not even written down on the chart)
  • Ideas are pre-maturely / reflexively culled
    When culling is a separate step, there’s a better chance, groups take the time to truly gauge an ideas merit

Only when we absolutely refrain from critiscm (that includes derisive facial expressions) in the gathering phase, can everyone drops the self-censorship and just blurt out anything that comes to mind. And you’ll have to do that in order to reach sufficiently many ideas.

While we’re at it, why reach for “many” ideas? Why not “good” ones?

Well, you try to get “good” ones via “many”. The underlying assumption is that

Quantity breeds quality.
[…] the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution. (From Wikipedia)

When asking a group to come up with 25 ideas in 5 minutes they often get unbelieving, bulging eyes, thinking it were impossible. Of course it’s possible, to come up with 25 ideas, just not 25 reasonable ideas 😉
It works only if you include seemingly ludicrous ideas!

So, in the beginning of a brainstorming session agree that all ideas are made welcome. Agree not to laugh at or belittle any idea. (See also OpenIDEO’s 7 tips for better brainstorming.)

I could be done writing here… Unfortunately it’s hard for many people to defer jugdement. Here are some things that might help:

  • Reminder in the beginning to welcome all ideas (and if you can’t at least don’t let your face show your detrimental thoughts)
  • Explicitly say, that AFTER the brainstorming there’s plenty of time to discuss and cull ideas. “Don’t worry, just put criticism on hold. You’ll have time to object later on.” (That’s why it’s “defer” and not “abolish” judgement.)
  • Whenever someone does critize, briefly call him/her on it. It’s too late for this instance, but deferring judgement is something that can be learned and will get easier with practise

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