November 14, 2013
One Reason Why Brainstorming Fails

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Advertising executive Alex Osborn, frustrated by his employees' inability to come up with novel and creative ideas, invented the concept of brainstorming in the late 1930's. His 1953 book, Applied Imagination, described how to apply the concept in very simple terms. Osborne put forth two basic principles: Defer Judgment and Focus on Quantity.

These days, people attempting to lead ideation sessions are often mindful of the first principle, but they almost never remember the second. And this, quite simply is a big reason why most brainstorm sessions fail to produce even mediocre results.

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At first glance, the quantity principle seems counter-intuitive. How can people come up with quality ideas, you might ask, by not striving for quality ideas?

But there's a method to this madness -- and it has to do with how our minds work and how we are trained to think.

If you are asked to come up with "good" and "novel" ideas in response to a problem, challenge or opportunity, whether you are working alone or with others, you will tend to aim for the best ideas possible. Makes sense, right?

However, in your striving for the best idea, you will tend to dismiss ideas you consider to be less-than-terrific.

When ideas pop into our minds, we tend to judge them immediately as too small, too big, too pedestrian, too unrealistic, too obvious, too goofy, too ordinary, too expensive, or too whatever.

It's as if the Red Queen is ensconced in our brains, shouting "off with his head!" at every idea that dares to speak up.

That's because human beings are conditioned to see what's wrong with an idea before seeing its possibilities.

It's like seeing a baby bird and judging it to be inadequate because it can't fly yet.

And this process is barely conscious. We dismiss our ideas so quickly that we often don't even notice they were thought of at all. "We've got nothing" becomes our mantra.

If you are generating ideas in a group and everyone is experiencing this phenomenon at the exact same time, the great silence will inevitably head its ugly rear. No one will be willing to share any of the ideas that have popped into their heads because their ideas will be self-censored -- deemed to be inadequate or flawed.

This is why "experts" are, usually, the worst brainstormers imaginable.

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Educated, experienced, and cognizant of all the ins and outs of the topic being brainstormed, experts will immediately see the flaws -- not the possibilities -- killing promising new ideas with the effectiveness of a healthy immune system killing off a germ or virus.

This is why many forward thinking focus groups bring in children or non-experts to generate new ideas -- people whose idea immune systems are not yet fully developed.

Think about it for a moment. If "ordinary" ideas can be generated, articulated, announced, and captured then an interesting thing can happen. Other people can improve the ideas. One idea will lead to another and another and another, radically increasing the odds of something truly original manifesting.

This kind of magic, however, cannot happen if Osborn's principle of striving for quantity is ignored.

Think of Osborn's dual principles as two sides of the same coin.

Defer judgment postpones the act of criticizing ideas as they are generated. Focusing on quantity helps us defer our tendency to judge our ideas as they are conceived.

Not unlike the proverbial coin, if you don't have both sides, "you've got nothing."

-- Val Vadeboncoeur

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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at November 14, 2013 09:00 PM

Comments

I completely agree. Ideas that seem poor may pan out into something good, and ideas that seem great may be nothing. Its fun to follow an idea and see where it leads.

Also, I feel that quieter people may be more nervous about voicing their ideas in a group for fear of judgment by peers. I certainly had this fear before a mentor helped me become more confident in my own ideas. Excellent post

Posted by: mlafever [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 15, 2013 09:19 PM

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