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Brainstorming: Not all ideas are good

BrainstormingDid the title get your attention?

Throughout my career I have heard over and over again, and even have said myself, that “there are no bad ideas, all ideas are good.” You and I know that it’s simply not true. Some ideas are bad and some are really bad.

What we should recognize and say is that ideas are not good or bad, they are all valuable. It’s really pretty simple to understand. When we share an object we make it less valuable; when we share an idea we make it more valuable. So even a bad idea, when shared, becomes more valuable. Humans do not do what they don’t value so we must value the sharing of ideas more than the ideas themselves.

I suspect we’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been exposed to the collaborative approach of sharing ideas: Brainstorming. The dictionary defines brainstorming as “a conference technique of solving problems, amassing information, simulating creative thinking, developing new ideas, etc. by unrestrained and spontaneous participation in discussion.” There are other dictionary definitions but they are all about the same and all include “creative, uninhibited and spontaneous participation.”

I assume many of you are familiar with the traditional process of brainstorming, going around a room or table and asking for ideas and putting them on a flip chart until we run out of ideas. Then we give participants colored dots (I hate the dots) or something similar so they can rank ideas. Frankly, I’m not sure if I could think of anything more inhibiting, restraining or less spontaneous than that process. It simply doesn’t work. It actually suppresses creativity. I know there are still fans of this process who will say it promotes “piggybacking”; one person building off another person’s idea. I believe in piggybacking or similar forms of building upon ideas, but it’s misplaced in the traditional brainstorming process.

I have found it is best to have individuals work alone and then pool (share) their ideas. This does a couple of things. First, there is no piggybacking. They will solely own the idea. It’s only human nature that we don’t value what we don’t own (it’s called the “endowment effect”), or certainly not as much, so brainstorming needs to be a value-add proposition.

Working alone is freeing as well. You have to be free to create no matter how smart you are. There are no inhibitions, it’s just you. Nobody is watching and waiting possibly casting a critical eye on your idea.

Lastly, don’t mistake spontaneous with quick. Spontaneous is described as “proceeding from a natural feeling or native tendency without external constraint.” You can build upon your own ideas for new ideas that make an idea better. Have you ever had an idea and you mulled over it a bit and spawned a better idea? That’s spontaneous: a light goes on. This is called “plussing”; somewhat like piggybacking but it’s adding to an existing idea versus stimulating a similar idea.

So the next time you are going to brainstorm try this approach. We call it our helix card exercise but it is basically Affinity Diagraming with a twist. Give each participate colored index cards (all the same color). I recommend 3 to 5 cards each depending on the number of participants but you can choose any quantity as long as it will generate a significant amount of ideas. If it’s five participants, I might give them 5 to 7 cards. If it’s ten participants, I might give them 3 to 5 cards. You get the idea. Next, ask them to write one idea, and only one idea, on each card. Don’t use pen or pencil. Use markers so they can be read from a distance. Give them all the time it takes for everyone to complete this part of the exercise. If some can’t come up with an idea for each card, that’s OK. If some would like additional cards, that’s also OK. Collect the cards and shuffle them so they are in no particular order and not grouped by the participant. Review each card and group similar ideas in columns on the wall and then title each column. If there is some question about what column an idea may belong, it is the author’s decision to clarify.

Pareto chartYou now have a Pareto chart ranking the ideas (no dots). I suggest that participants read the cards and not a facilitator. This promotes more participation and dialogue.

As always, I do not promote that you do things the way we do them. I even encourage you to use a different approach if it gets you to the same place. What we would like is that, regardless of the approach, you retain the spirit and objectives of this approach–“creative, uninhibited and spontaneous participation.”