In Defense of Brainstorming
In the past few years I have noticed a curious trend in the media -- one I can no longer ignore -- and that is the appearance of seriously derisive articles about brainstorming by self-declared pundits and free lance writers.
Citing selected research on the subject and paying brief homage to Alex Osborne, the father of brainstorming, they make bold assertions about the ineffectiveness of the method, often claiming that "it does not work" and making grand declarations like "people are more creative away from the crowd" and "over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in a group."
While the previous two quotes do have some degree of truth associated with them, likening a brainstorm session to a "crowd" is not only a poor choice of metaphors, it is patently untrue.
And while many irrational decisions have been made in groups since the beginning of time, to assume that irrational decisions will necessarily be made in a brainstorming session is only more proof that the writers of the recent spate of anti-brainstorming screeds have either never participated in a skillfully facilitated brainstorm session or are hopelessly late for their next journalistic deadline, refusing to take the time to go beyond their specious all-or-nothing conclusions drawn from someone else's research -- some of which is more than 50 years old.
To blatantly conclude that brainstorming sessions don't work is as absurd as saying that marriages don't work because 50% end in divorce or tourists shouldn't visit New York City because sometimes the traffic is bad.
What I'm guessing that brainstorming naysayers really mean is that bad brainstorming sessions don't work... or poorly facilitated brainstorming sessions don't work... or brainstorming sessions with the wrong mix of unprepared participants (marriage, anyone?) don't work.
Brainstorming critics like to cite a 1958 study, at Yale, that showed that students thinking on their own came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups -- and their solutions were deemed to be more effective and feasible.
Fine. Good. Terrific. I'm all for people thinking on their own in their dorm room... or Starbucks... or the zoo. That's a good thing. But as a replacement for a well-run brainstorming session? Why the either/or syndrome? Why not both?
Just because you had breakfast this morning doesn't necessarily mean you should skip dinner tonight, does it?
And besides, even a casual scan of the literature will reveal an extraordinary number of innovation-leaning people who joined forces with others to conceive something brilliant that none of them could have conjured on their own.
Think Jobs and Wozniak. Think Watson and Crick, Hewlett and Packard, John, Paul, George, and Ringo -- and any number of less famous ad hoc groups of aspiring innovators, working in all kind of organizations, who came out of their corporate dorm rooms long enough to jam with other seekers of possibility to jump start bold new advances in just about every industry on planet Earth.
But wait! There's more!
The anti-brainstorming forces are also fond of asserting that creativity is stifled in a brainstorming session.
Hello! Earth to journalists on deadline writing about brainstorming for a flight magazine. To claim that creativity will invariably be stifled in a brainstorming session is like saying that creativity will invariably be stifled in a marriage... or in a school... or in an organization. Possible? Yes. Whenever two or more people with egos get together, creativity has the potential to be stifled. But inevitable? No.
On the contrary, creativity is often sparked in a group -- even groups that are cranky, competitive, and strong-willed. Indeed, "creative dissonance" is often the catalyst for breakthrough -- NOT lone wolf, ivory tower idea generators sitting alone in their room attempting to conjure up the next big thing.
Brainstorm detractors -- as least the ones I've read -- are fond of citing "social loafing', "social blocking", "free riding", and other group-centric sociological phenomenon as proof of why brainstorming sessions should cease to exist.
Yes, I agree that some people who work in organizations fit this slacker stereotype. But there is no room for this kind of energy-sucking behavior in a well-run brainstorming session -- one that has been thoughtfully prepared, the right people invited, and with a skillful facilitator catalyzing the creative process.
Would brainstorm detractors suggest that we get rid of cities because some of them are polluted, or get rid of marriages because some couples quarrel, or eliminate music because some people turn up their stereos just a little too loud when their neighbors are trying to sleep?
With all due respect (well, with at least some respect), I humbly invite the small, but very vocal anti-brainstorming faction to pause for a moment and contemplate any one of the following questions -- questions with the potential to spark the kind of creative thinking our small, but very vocal anti-brainstorming faction might have missed by not participating in a brainstorming session on this very topic.
1. How can brainstorm sessions be improved?
2. How can the facilitators of brainstorm sessions learn how to dependably spark creativity in others?
3. How can brainstorm sessions build on the good ideas generated by participants before the session begins?
4. How can team leaders or project managers ensure that the right mix of people attend their brainstorm sessions?
5. How can a group of brainstorm participants generate and abide by a set of guidelines that will radically increase their odds of generating breakthrough ideas?
6. How can brainstorming become part of a continuum of idea generation strategies in an organization, so its "idea eggs" are not all in the same basket?
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BRAINSTORMING: The Power of Three
Every brainstorm session you will ever facilitate or attend, like any good movie you will ever see, can be divided into three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. No matter what the topic, who's in the room, or how stale the muffins, you will cycle through the same three phases again and again. How well you will cycle through these phases is another story.
Three. Not two. Not four. Not one. Three. The more attuned you are to threeness, the more likely it will be that the sessions you facilitate will be successful. Here's a quickie overview:
1. THE BEGINNING: This is the "foreplay" stage of brainstorming -- the mood and context setting effort that will either make or break the session.
While the specific "look and feel" to the beginning may vary from session to session, the outcomes you are aiming for will not: 1) Establishing a sense of relaxation and rapport; 2) Agreeing on ground rules for participation; 3) Clarifying the history and current reality of the topic to be brainstormed; 4) Framing the challenge in the most powerful way; 5) Establishing yourself as the facilitator of the creative thinking process.
2. THE MIDDLE ("Divergence"): This is the heart of the matter -- why people were invited to the session in the first place -- to think outside the box and generate compelling ideas.
What you actually do in the middle phase of your brainstorming session is up to you. I recommend the right mix of "group geometry" (solo, dyad, triad, or full group), creative thinking triggers, and the skillful application of facilitation savvy.
Remember, the goal of this phase is an abundance of ideas -- not just discussion, debate, philosophizing, or long-form storytelling.
3. THE END ("Convergence"): Just like most people would prefer to plant a garden than weed it, the end game of a brainstorm session requires more "roll-up-the-sleeves" effort than most facilitators want to deal with -- the application of some left-brain mojo after the right brain has had its say.
The end game of creative thinking is all about jump starting the process of making order out of chaos and clearing the way forward.
Depending on the amount of time you have, this order making stage might include: idea review, idea evaluation, idea selection, identifying idea champions, clarifying next steps, and deciding who's going to generate a brainstorm report -- and by when.
There's no need to make people cranky by trying to do too much convergence during this closure phase, but it's definitely good to get things grounded as a prelude to whatever follow up effort will be made.
Three phases to a brainstorming session. Three.
The Art of Sparking Innovation
When my mother was alive, she told me she had no idea what I did for a living. Around the canasta table, she would tell her friends I was a "motivational speaker", no matter how many times I explained what I actually did. The slide show below is dedicated to her and to YOU, too -- especially if you're wondering what the heck goes on in one of Idea Champions' innovation-sparking workshops. Best to view full screen.
July 19, 2015
Brainstorming vs. Braincalming
If you work in a big organization, small business, freelance, or eat cheese, there's a good chance you've participated in at least a few brainstorming sessions in your life. You've noodled, conjured, envisioned, ideated, piggybacked, and endured overly enthusiastic facilitators doing their facilitator thing. You may have even gotten some results. Hallelujah!
But even the best run brainstorming sessions are based on a questionable assumption -- that the origination of powerful, new ideas depend on the facilitated interaction between people.
You know, the "two heads are better than one" syndrome.
I'd like to propose an alternative for the moment: "two heads are better than one sometimes."
For the moment, I invite you to consider the possibility that the origination of great, new ideas doesn't take place in the storm, but in the calm before the storm... or the calm after the storm... or sometimes, even in the eye of the storm itself.
Every wonder why so many people get their best ideas during "down time" -- the time just before they go to sleep... or just after waking... or in dreams... or in the shower... or in the car on the way home from work?
Those aren't brainstorming sessions, folks. Those are braincalming sessions. Incubation time.
Those are time outs for the hyperactive child genius within us who is always on the go. Methinks, in today's over-caffeinated, late-for-a-very-important-date business world, we have become addicted to the storm.
"Look busy," is the mantra, not "look deeply."
We want high winds. We want lightning. We want proof that something is happening, even if the proof turns out to be nothing more than sound and fury. High winds do not last all morning. Sometimes the storm has to stop.
That's why some of your co-workers like to show up early at the office before anyone else has arrived. For many of us, that's the only time we have to think.
"The best thinking has been done in solitude," said Thomas Edison. "The worst has been done in turmoil."
I'm not suggesting that you stop brainstorming (um... that's 20% of our business). All I'm suggesting is you balance it out with some braincalming. The combination of the two can be very, very powerful.
HERE'S A FEW WAYS TO GET STARTED:
1. In the middle of your next brainstorming, session, restate the challenge -- then ask everyone to sit, in silence, for five minutes, and write down whatever ideas come to mind. (Be ready for the inevitable joking that will immediately follow your request). Then, after five minutes are up, go "round robin" and ask everyone to state their most compelling idea.
2. Ask each member of your team to think about a specific business-related challenge before they go to bed tonight and write down their ideas when they wake up. Then, gather your team together for a morning coffee and see what you've got.
3. Conduct your next brainstorming session in total silence. Begin by having the brainstorming challenge written on a big flip chart before people enter the room. Then, after some initial schmoozing, explain the "silence ground rule" and the process: People will write their ideas on post-its or flip charts. Their co-workers, also in silence, will read what gets posted and piggyback. Nobody talks.
It's your decision, at the end of the idea generating time, if you want the debrief to be spoken -- or if you want people to come back the next day for a verbal debrief.
"Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods." - Ralph Waldo EmersonJune 22, 2015
Need to Train People to Facilitate Effective Brainstorm Sessions? June 08, 2015
Brainstorm or Shitstorm?
April 21, 2015
Full disclosure: The title of this blog post is not original. I borrowed it from a new client of mine, Jess Seilheimer, Chief Strategy Officer of MWW -- a force of nature who recently invited my company, Idea Champions, to design and facilitate a 5-hour multi-agency brainstorm session. Jess' description of her experience and the impact of the session made my day. If you are looking for a better way to run your brainstorm sessions, Jess' blog post is for you.
10 Ways to Help Left Brainers Tap Into Their Creativity
If your job requires you to lead meetings, brainstorming sessions, or problem solving gatherings of any kind, chances are good that most of the people you come in contact with are left-brain dominant: analytical, logical, linear folks with a passion for results and a huge fear that the meeting you are about to lead will end with a rousing chorus of kumbaya.
Not exactly the kind of mindset conducive to breakthrough thinking.
Do not lose heart, oh facilitators of the creative process. Even if you find yourself in a room full of 10,000 left brainers, there are tons of ways to work with this mindset in service to bringing out the very best of the group's collective genius:
1. Diffuse the fear of ambiguity by continually clarifying the process
Most left-brain-dominant people hate open-ended processes and anything that smacks of ambiguity.
Next time you find yourself leading a creative thinking session, make it a point to give participants, early is the session, a mental map of the process you'll be using. Explain that the session will consist of two key elements: divergent thinking and convergent thinking.
In the divergent segment, you'll be helping people consider non-traditional approaches. In the convergent segment, you'll be helping people analyze, evaluate, and select from the multiplicity of ideas they have generated.
If participants are going to get uneasy, it will happen during the divergent segment. Your task? Periodically remind them of where they are in the process. "Here's our objective," you might say. "Here's where we've been. Here's where we are. And here's we're going. Any questions?"
2. Get people talking about AHAS! they've had
No matter how risk averse or analytical people in your sessions may be, it's likely that all of them -- at some time or another -- have had a really great idea. "Creativity" really isn't all that foreign to them (although they may think it is). All you need to do to get them in touch with that part of themselves is help them recall a moment when they were operating at a high level of creativity.
Get them talking about how it felt, what were the conditions, and what preceded the breakthrough. You'll be amazed at the stories you'll hear and how willing everyone will be, after that, to really stretch out.
3. Identify (and transform) limiting assumptions
One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is the assumption-making part of our brain -- the part that is forever drawing lines in the sand -- the part that is ruled by the past. Most people are not aware of the assumptions they have -- in the same way that most drivers are not aware of the blind spot in their mirror.
If you want people to be optimally creative, it is imperative that you find a way to help them identify their limiting assumptions about the challenge they are brainstorming. "Awareness cures," explains psychologist Fritz Perls. But DON'T get caught in a lengthy discussion about the collective limiting assumptions of the group. This is often just another way that left-brain dominant participants will default to analyzing and debating.
Instead, lead a process that will help participants identify and explore their limiting assumptions. Then, time allowing, help them transform each of these limiting assumptions into open-ended "How can we?" questions for brainstorming.
4. Encourage idea fluency
Dr. Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists of the 20th century, was once asked, "How do you get a good idea?" His response? "The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away."
That's why "Go for a quantity of ideas" is the first rule of brainstorming. You want to encourage people, early and often, to go for quantity. This will short circuit participants' perfectionistic, self-censoring tendencies -- two behaviors that are certain death to creativity.
5. Invite humor
The right use of is a great way to help people tap into their right brains. Indeed, "haha" and "aha" are closely related. Both are the result of surprise or discontinuity. You laugh when your expectations are confronted in a delightful way.
Please note, however, that your use of humor must not be demeaning to anyone in the room. Freud explained that every "joke" has a victim and is used by the teller to gain advantage over the victim -- a way to affirm power. And when a group finds itself in the realm of power (and the yielding of power), it will undoubtedly end up in left brain territory.
You don't want to feed that beast.
Instead, set the tone by telling a victimless joke or two, or by your own self-deprecating humor. But even more important than "joke telling" is to allow and encourage a free flowing sense of playfulness.
6. Do the right brain/ left brain two-step
Brainstorming for 3, 4 or 5 hours in a row is unusually exhausting, resulting in the "diminishing returns" syndrome. Creative thinking, like life itself, follows natural laws. Day is followed by night, winter by spring, inbreath by outbreath.
That's why the design of your creative thinking session needs to alternate between the cerebral and the kinesthetic -- between brainstorming and some kind of hands-on, experiential activity. By doing this two-step, participants will stay refreshed and engaged.
7. Periodically mention that chaos precedes creative breakthroughs
Left-brained, logical people are rarely comfortable with ambiguity, chaos and the unknown. It seems messy. Disorganized. Downright unprofessional. Indeed, much of the Six Sigma work being done in corporations these days is to reduce variability and increase predictability.
If you want to get really creative, you will need to increase variability and help participants get more "out of control." Picasso said it best, "The act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." Tom Peters said it second best, "Innovation is a messy business."
So, when you sense that your session is filled with ambiguity-phobic people, remember to mention how it's normal for ambiguity to precede a creative breakthrough. You may even want to mention how you will be purposefully infusing the session with moments of ambiguity, just to prime the creative pump.
8. Establish criteria for evaluation
The reason why ideas are usually considered a dime a dozen is because most people are unclear about their process for identifying the priceless ones. That's why a lot of brainstorming sessions are frustrating. Tons of possibilities are generated, but there is no clear path for winnowing and choosing.
Let's assume, for example, that the session you facilitate generates 100 powerful, new ideas. Do you have a process for helping participants pare the 100 down to a manageable few? If not, you need one. Ideally, the criteria for selecting ideas will be clarified before the session and introduced to participants early in the session.
Please note that there is some debate amongst brainstorm mavens as to when to offer the criteria. Some say this should happen at the beginning of the session (to help assuage the left brain need for logic and boundaries). Others suggest delaying the identification of criteria until just before the idea evaluation process. Either way will work. Your call.
9. Be a referee when you have to
No matter how many ground rules you mention about "suspending judgment" or "delaying evaluation," you are going to have some heavy hitters in the room just waiting for a moment to doubt your approach or "the process."
Indeed, one of the favorite (often unconscious) strategies of some left-brainers is to debate and question the facilitator every step of the way. While you want to honor their concerns and right to speak their truth, you also want to hold the bar high for the intention behind the brainstorming session -- and that is to challenge the status quo, entertain the new, and create space for imaginations to roam.
Don't be afraid to be firm with participants who want to control the session. At the very least, ask them to suspend their need for "convergence" (i.e. evaluation, judgment, decision making) to the end of the session when there will be plenty of time to exercise that very important muscle.
10. Consult with the tough people on the breaks
Every once in a while, a really opinionated person shows up in a session -- someone who is probably very smart, competent, experienced, with a big BS detector, and just enough arrogance to make you feel uncomfortable. These people can really affect the group, especially if they hold positions of power in the organization.
In the best of all worlds, these people would always be on your side. They won't be. Be careful about playing to these people in a neurotic attempt to get their approval. You won't get it. But DO seek them out on breaks and engage them. Get them talking. Pay attention. See if you can pick up any useful feedback or clues about revising your agenda or approach.
Even though you wouldn't choose to be trapped on a desert island with them, these folks may turn out to be a huge blessing -- because they are carriers of a particular sensibility that needs to be honored. More than likely, some of the other people in the room are feeling the same thing, but have been too polite to show their true colors. So, don't be afraid of these people. They can be a very valuable resource.April 09, 2015
The 8 Dimensions of a Brainstorm Session
Most people think brainstorming sessions are all about ideas -- much in the same way Wall Street bankers think life is all about money.
While ideas are certainly a big part of brainstorming, they are only a part.
People who rush into a brainstorming session starving for new ideas will miss the boat (and the train, car, and unicycle) completely unless they tune into the some other important dynamics that are also at play:
1. INVESTIGATION: If you want your brainstorming sessions to be effective, you'll need to do some investigating before hand. Get curious. Ask questions. Dig deeper. The more you find out what the real issues are, the greater your chances of framing powerful questions to brainstorm and choosing the best techniques to use.
2. IMMERSION: While good ideas can surface at any time, their chances radically increase the more that brainstorm participants are immersed. Translation? No coming and going during a session. No distractions. No interruptions. And don't forget to put a "do not disturb" sign on the door.
3. INTERACTION: Ideas come to people at all times of day and under all kinds of circumstances. But in a brainstorming session, it's the quality of interaction that makes the difference -- how people connect with each other, how they listen, and build on ideas. Your job, as facilitator, is to increase the quality of interaction.
4. INSPIRATION: Creative output is often a function of mindset. Bored, disengaged people rarely originate good ideas. Inspired people do. This is one of your main tasks, as a brainstorm facilitator -- to do everything in your power to keep participants inspired. The more you do, the less techniques you will need.
5. IDEATION: Look around. Everything you see began as an idea in someone's mind. Simply put, ideas are the seeds of innovation -- the first shape a new possibility takes. As a facilitator of the creative process, your job is to foster the conditions that amplify the odds of new ideas being conceived, developed, and articulated.
6. ILLUMINATION: Ideas are great. Ideas are cool. But they are also a dime a dozen unless they lead to an insight or aha. Until then, ideas are only two dimensional. But when the light goes on inside the minds of the people in your session, the ideas are activated and the odds radically increase of them manifesting.
7. INTEGRATION: Well-run brainstorming sessions have a way of intoxicating people. Doors open. Energy soars. Possibilities emerge. But unless participants have a chance to make sense of what they've conceived, the ideas are less likely to manifest. Opening the doors of the imagination is a good thing, but so is closure.
8. IMPLEMENTATION: Perhaps the biggest reason why most brainstorming sessions fail is what happens after -- or, shall I say, what doesn't happen after. Implementation is the name of the game. Before you let people go, clarify next steps, who's doing what (and by when), and what outside support is needed.March 07, 2015
How Do You Bring Out Brillance from a Diverse Group of People?
February 24, 2015
How to Keep Small Group Brainstorming On Track
If you are planning to lead any kind of ideation or brainstorming session in the near future and will be dividing the group into sub-groups, here's one thing to keep in mind:
No matter how clear the instructions you give or how much you reinforce the ground rules of brainstorming, there is a 95% chance that the small groups will default to any of the following instead of brainstorming: conversation, debate, storytelling, schmoozing, philosophizing, venting, and question-asking. Bet on it.
WHY does this happen? Because there is precious little time, in most organizations, for people to simply get together and TALK about their issues, problems, and concerns in a meaningful way. Too many people work alone and don't have enough opportunities to get input, information, non-threatening feedback, and the perspective of others.
Bottom line, most people are subject to their own version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (i.e. physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization).
In other words, before diving into the "higher octave stuff" (i.e. creative thinking), people need to deal with the basics of their business life -- the stuff that is "on their minds."
If you only have a little while for a brainstorming session, you, as facilitator, of course, want to "cut to the chase" and get people ideating, but THEIR need usually involves something else, something more immediate that needs expression and an audience.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT THIS?
1. Create more opportunities, on the job, for people to share their experiences, information, and perspectives with each other.
2. Schedule longer brainstorming sessions, so people have the time to "stretch out."
3. Include some "hierarchy of needs" time early in your session (i.e. small group sharing that had nothing to do with ideation).
4. Before dividing into small groups, be very upfront about this non-ideation phenomenon. Let people know their deliverable is ideas, not conversation, venting, or storytelling.
5. Ask each group to identify a "brainstorm facilitator" to keep things on track. Explain that role clearly.
6. State the brainstorming ground rules very clearly and project them onto a big screen for all people to see.
7. Create a "venting wall" where people can post their gripes and complaints on post-it notes before the brainstorming groups begin.
8. Give people a measurable goal for their small group brainstorming sessions (i.e. each person needs to jot down at least 10 new ideas).
9. After the brainstorming begins, wander around the room and observe the groups. If they are getting off track, remind them of the goal. (PS: Before the brainstorming begins, alert people people to the fact that you will be doing this, so they don't feel "singled out.")
10. Train a select group of in-house change agents how to facilitate effective brainstorming sessions.
Big thanks to Brennan Morgan and Ahkesha Murray, of LMI, for the inspiration to bell this cat.January 24, 2015
Radio Woodstock in the House!
We just received this very nice piece of feedback from the President of Radio Woodstock, Gary Chetkof.
"Idea Champions was a true partner in helping us untangle some of the issues we were struggling with. They were very easy to work with and the processes used were fun and creative and they worked splendidly. We were able to find out what the major obstacles were and our entire team worked together to find solutions. Everyone participated fully, and everyone now has much more clarity about how to better work together. We even have our new mission statement that you can see on our Facebook page! I wholeheartedly recommend Idea Champions to any business that wants to problem solve, brainstorm, or get their employees to work more harmoniously together."
And this just in from Richard Fusco, Radio Woodstock's General Manager:
"As a small company where everyone wears many hats, being organized and all pulling in the same direction is key. Strangely, as a communications company, our internal communications were off. Val Vadeboncoeur of Idea Champions helped us with all three. His sessions were focused and fun. We all came away with a new unified working spirit."January 21, 2015
The Good Thing About Bad Ideas
One of the inevitable things you will hear at a brainstorming session is "there are no bad ideas." Not true. There are plenty of bad ideas. Nazism, for instance. Arena football. Bow ties.
What well-meaning "keep hope alive" brainstorming lovers really mean is this: Even bad ideas can lead to good ideas if the idea originators are committed enough to extract the meaning from the "bad".
Do you think that War and Peace was written in one sitting? No way. There were plenty of earlier drafts that were horrid, but eventually led to the final outcome.
The key? To find the value in what seems to be a "bad idea" and then use that extracted value as a catalyst for further exploration. The following technique, excerpted from Awake at the Wheel, shows you how...
HOW IT WORKS:
1. Bring a challenge, question, or problem to mind.
2. Conjure up a really bad idea in response to it.
3. Tell another person about your bad idea.
4. Ask the other person to think of something redeemable about your bad idea -- and tell you what it is.
5. Using this redeemable essence as a catalyst or clue, brainstorm new possibilities.
The Awesome Power of Immersion
"If I had an hour to solve a problem," explained Albert Einstein, "I'd spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and the last five solving it."
Translation? One of the secrets to having a big breakthrough is immersion -- "the state of being deeply engaged, involved, or absorbed."
Immersion is the ocean in which our fabulous insights, ideas, and illuminations are swimming. That's why Yogis seek out caves, embryos gestate, and writers go on retreat.
And that's why my business partner, Steven McHugh, and I rented a townhouse in Boulder, Colorado for 30 days and 30 nights when it was time for us to start up Idea Champions. We knew we had a great idea for a business, but we also knew that ideas were a dime a dozen and that unless we really immersed we'd end up with nothing much more than a charming story to tell at cocktail parties -- the idea for a business, but not the business itself.
Armed with little more than a flip chart, a few marking pens, and a burning desire to create something new, we unplugged from all our other commitments and jumped in with both feet.
We talked. We walked. We walked our talk. We noodled. We conjured. We brainstormed, blue-skied, dialogued, role played, invented, read, sang, stretched, drank coffee, wine, the crisp Colorado air, and whatever else it took to free ourselves from the gravity of what we already knew. If this was Rocky 1, our townhouse was the Gym, Adrienne nowhere in sight.
And every night before we went to bed, blissed out of our trees, we'd remind each other to remember our dreams and speak them aloud the first thing in the morning.
CLUES. We were looking for clues, hints, perfumed handkerchiefs dropped by our muse while we slept and anything else that bubbled to the surface of the imaginal stew we found ourselves now swimming in.
Crackpots? No. More like crockpots, simmering in our own creative juices, unimpaired by the almost infinite amount of distractions we had grown accustomed to calling our life.
Immersed. We were completely immersed -- two eggs submerged in the boiling water of creation, heat turned up, lid on, timer off.
Our walls? The walls of our abode? Covered with paper, sketches, scribbles, post-its, quotes, pictures, lists, charts, diagrams, questions, and take out menus -- the barely decipherable hieroglyphics of our journey into who knows where.
The floors? Our mothers would have had a heart attack, littered as they were with anything we didn't have a place for. Rube Goldberg meets Fellini. Yin meets Yang meets Jung -- the flora and fauna of two aspiring entrepreneurs on fire with possibility.
But our immersion went far beyond the four walls of our abode. It was a state of mind, not a geographical location. It didn't really matter where we were. Walking by the creek or sitting in a bar was all the same to us, ruled as we were by our shared fascination, random silken threads of conversation with complete strangers, and the increasingly apparent sense that we were on to something big.
And then, on the morning of the 19th day, very much at ease in our townhouse abode, there was a knock on the door -- a loud and insistent knock, a knock both of us found rather odd since nobody knew where we lived -- or so we thought.
"It's open," Steven shouted from across the room. "Go ahead and let yourself in."
And there, at the threshold, stood a woman neither of us knew, a woman boldly announcing that, for the past three days, she'd been hearing about "these two creativity guys" and she just had to meet us, her business now on the cusp of either breaking through or breaking down.
I don't remember a single thing of we said, but whatever it was hit the nail on the head.
The next day, there was another knock on the door. Apparently, someone else had heard about our whereabouts. This guy had a business, too, or was trying to have a business. He spoke. We listened. He spoke some more. We listened some more, occasionally asking a question or two and sharing some insight. He too, got what he needed.
On the third day, Jesus did not rise from the grave, but, yes, there was another knock on the door -- just enough proof to the logical part of our minds that the previous two visits were not random events, but part of some kind of emerging pattern -- what fans of Rupert Sheldrake might refer to as manifestations of the morphogenetic field, or what less metaphysical folks might describe as our very own "field of dreams."
Steven and I had done nothing at all to draw these people to us -- no ads in the paper, no posters on poles, no calls, no emails, no flyers, no social marketing campaigns. The only thing we'd done was immerse -- dig deeply into our own highly charged process of creating something new.
But this "nothing at all" wasn't nothing at all. It was something -- something grand and glorious. Something extraordinarily attractive.
Is a mother hen sitting on her egg doing nothing at all? Is she slacking? Is her seeming disappearance from the poultry marketplace a sign of irresponsibility?
To the casual observer, maybe that's what it looks like, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sitting is exactly what the mother hen needs to do in order to bring new life into the world. Stillness, not action, is her path.
Did Steven and I accomplish what we set out to do during our 30 days of immersion? Yes, we did. In spades. Beyond the inspiration, collaboration, and good feelings we experienced, we emerged with the design of our first product -- a creative thinking training we ended up licensing to AT&T just two years later for a truck load of money.
Was our immersion time all fun and games? No way. Chaos and confusion were our housemates, but the rent they paid sparked a ton of learning, creativity, discovery, and a new found willingness to make friends with the unknown -- what Henry Miller was referring to when he defined confusion as "simply a word we've invented for an order that is not yet understood."
In today's business world, immersion is a very rare commodity. ADD rules the day. Time is sliced and diced. We don't have time. Time has us. We tweet, we delete, we tap our feet, but all too often nothing much beyond the status quo ever really happens. Downtime has become an anathema -- the province of "B list" players. Busy-ness and business have become synonymous.
The assumption? The more we do and the faster we do it, the more success we'll have. Boil an egg? Ha! We microwave it -- even if it tastes like shit. Dive in? No way. We hydroplane.
But it doesn't have to be that way. It really doesn't.
Slowing down and going deep trumps speeding up and going crazy. Immersion trumps diversion. It's possible. Yes, it is. I have proof. And so do YOU, if only you would pause long enough to remember those extraordinary times when you unplugged, tuned in, and dove into your own process of creating something new and wonderful.
A QUESTION FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
What can you do, this week, month, or quarter, to unplug from the daily grind and give yourself the luxury of immersion? Where will you go? When? And who will you invite to accompany you, if anyone?
Excerpted from my forthcoming book: WISDOM AT WORK: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life.December 09, 2014
How to Jump Start Brilliance in 2015 in an Extremely Cost Effective Way
The first company that says YES to Idea Champions' brainstorm facilitation training (and signs a contract by 12/31) receives a 20% discount. This ain't eBay folks, but it IS a good deal. Operators are NOT standing by. (We don't have any operators). But we will get back to you within 24 hours.)
What our clients say
Our New Brainstorm Website
October 27, 2014
Why Train People to Become Masterful Brainstorm Facilitators
October 23, 2014
Why Does Your Company Brainstorm?
We asked 20 of our clients WHY their companies conduct brainstorming sessions. Here's what they told us, on a scale of 1-5.
4.27 Get different points of view
4.11 Spark creative thinking
4.11 Originate fresh approaches
4.05 Create new possibilities
4.05 Inspire original thinking
4.00 Challenge the status quo
4.00 Tap collective genius
3.94 Unlock fresh insights
3.94 Stir the creative juices
3.94 Generate bold, new ideas
3.83 Jump start innovation
3.77 Solve tough challenges
3.77 Free up creative energy
3.77 Think out of the box
3.72 Think up new solutions quickly
3.66 Accelerate solution finding
3.50 Awaken untapped brilliance
3.38 Quicken the ideation process
3.00 Delight your clients
We teach people how to lead breakthrough brainstorming sessions.
A Brainstorm Training that Works
What follows is some juicy feedback we just received from Blue States Digital, a new client of ours who participated in our brainstorm facilitation training:
"The three-day Conducting Genius training was engaging, fun and informative. I feel empowered as a facilitator and confident in my skills and ability. Mitch and Val were fantastic teachers -- I was sad when it was over!"
"We did the three-day version of Conducting Genius, and I wish it could've been even longer! By far the most fun, useful, productive, and engaging training I've ever attended."
"It felt like summer camp for creative nerds."
"After the session, I felt energized and empowered -- ready to lead a brainstorm, boss a meeting, and infuse my work with more creativity and thought. Val and Mitch are magicians -- and they passed some of that magic on to us."October 14, 2014
Join Us in NYC on November 19th
October 04, 2014
HOW TO GET PEOPLE OUT OF THE SO-CALLED BOX: A 5-Minute Tutorial
Ever heard the expression "get out of the box?" Of course you have. Ever wonder what the six sides of that so-called box actually are? If not, here's your 5-minute tutorial of the day. Once you're clear about what the sides of the box are, you will be significantly more able to help people (and yourself) get out of it.October 01, 2014
HOW TO FACILITATE BRAINSTORMING SESSIONS: A 5 Minute Video Tutorial
Here's a 5-minute video tutorial on the eight dimensions of a brainstorming session. Most facilitators think brainstorm sessions are all about ideation. They're not. There are seven other variables at play that effect the outcome of your ideational efforts.September 25, 2014
When Dogs Spark Big Ideas
During the past 25 years I have facilitated more than 1,000 brainstorming sessions for a wide variety of heavy hitting organizations -- everyone from MTV to GE to government think thanks. I've worked with left-brained people, right-brained people, and reptilian-brained people.
As you might imagine, I've developed quite a few techniques to get people out of their heads and into a more robust realm of possibility. But the biggest breakthroughs I've seen have had less to do with my methods than they did with spontaneous occurrences.
Like the time a Porcelain Hotel Dog became the catalyst for a game changing product idea.
Here's the deal:
I was leading a daylong ideation session for a large telecommunications company when it was time for lunch. Everyone left the room, visions of tuna wraps in their head, when I noticed a peculiar looking porcelain dog, next to a plastic fern, in the corner of the room -- the kind of kitschy piece of Americana you'd walk by at a yard sale, mumbling under your breath that this was absolutely the last time you'd ever attend a yard sale.
Somehow, I found myself drawn to the dog and, being in a particularly playful mood, picked it up and placed it on a folding chair in the middle of the room.
Tickled by its absolute uselessness and lack of beauty, I put my hat on it's weird, little head, and went about my business of getting ready for the afternoon session.
Five minutes later, the head of HR walks into the room, takes off his power tie, and places it, with a chuckle, around the dog's neck.
Then an IT guy enters, removes his "Hello My Name Is" badge and sticks it on the dog's chest. A well-dressed marketing woman removes her necklace and wraps it around the dog's waist.
There, in the middle of the room, unleashed, unbarking, but no longer unloved, sits the perfect brainstorm session mascot -- a 3D embodiment of our collective mind at that moment in time.
The rest of the participants return soon enough and gather around the porcelain dog as if it was the Holy Grail. A Blackberry gets taped to his back, a scarf gets wrapped around his neck. Someone puts a bandaid over his mouth.
Something is happening that has absolutely nothing to do with my agenda for the day. A curious kind of creativity portal is opening up right before my eyes.
"OK!" I blurt, as soon as the last person returns from lunch. "What cool, new product ideas come to mind when you look at good ole' Fido here?"
Ideas start flooding the room. Big ideas. Bold ideas. Totally ridiculous ideas.
In just a few minutes, it is clear that a big idea is emerging -- an idea for a niche telecommunications market no one in this room has ever considered before -- animals -- more specifically, dogs who live with blind or disabled people -- the kind of dogs who could easily be trained to push a large red button on a one-button phone any time their Master was unable to -- what soon became known to all of us in that room, as the Paw Phone.
Pet idea conceived, we spend the next ten minutes fleshing it out, adding it to the list of the other big ideas to be presented at the end of the day to an independent focus group.
The funny thing? Of the ten ideas we pitched to the focus group that day, the Paw Phone was the third highest rated. Woof woof.
Good ideas can come from anyone at any time and any place. While it is impossible to predict precisely when and where the good ideas will manifest, it is possible to predict the conditions that will make it more likely for the good ideas to make their appearance.
In the Paw Phone session, one of these conditions was the spirit of playfulness and spontaneity that manifested itself so gloriously during the lunch break.
At that time, I simply followed my hunch that the porcelain dog, was, somehow, part of the creative process. I didn't know how things would unfold. I could only trust my instincts and past experience that, often, seemingly random catalysts are the DNA for breakthrough. That, and the fact, that when we manage to enter the state of not trying we often get the best results.
Carl Jung understood this phenomenon: "The creation of something new," he said, "is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves."
Play! The creative mind plays with the object it loves! Yes!
And yet, in the corporate world, playfulness is often demonized, marginalized, and ignored -- branded "unprofessional" -- as if it was a symptom of the worst kind of anti-business slacker mentality.
Indeed, if you find yourself laughing on the job, many of the people around you will think you aren't taking your job seriously. No wonder 62% of all Americans characterize themselves as being dissatisfied with work.
The roots of this weirdness can be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
What happened to Adam when he took a bite of the forbidden fruit? He was condemned, for life, to earning his living by "the sweat of his brow". The free lunch was over. Adam's spontaneity doomed him to a life of heavy lifting and we are the ones who have gotten the hernia.
It's time to shed the notion that work always has to be so serious -- that grunting and groaning is the preferred response and that laughter, in the workplace, means you're not working. Baloney. Untrue. Bogus. Cro-magnon. Insane.
This just in: Life is supposed to be fun. And since work is a part of life, it too needs to be fun -- especially when you find yourself in the middle of a brainstorming session, trying to originate the kind of ideas that will make a difference in the world.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, how serious is your workplace? The brainstorming sessions you attend?. And if it's 7 or more, what can you do to lighten things up?
BONUS QUESTION: What laughable idea of yours may have more merit in it if you just dig a little deeper into the essence of what that idea is really all about?August 22, 2014
How to Prepare for a Brainstorming Session
Our latest Huffington Post article on how to prepare for a brainstorming session.August 10, 2014
Why Leaders Shouldn't Lead Brainstorming Sessions
Here's one of the dirty little secrets of corporate brainstorm sessions: When they are led by upper management, department heads, or project leaders, they usually get manipulated.
Because honchos and honchettes are so heavily invested in the topic being brainstormed, it is common for them to bend the collective genius of the group to their own particular point of view. Not a good idea.
Participants -- out of respect for the expertise (or position or parking space) of the facilitator -- will invariably moderate their input. The results? Same old same old.
That's why brainstorm facilitators need to remain neutral.
Not neutral like vague. Neutral like free of any pre-determined concept or outcome.
An open window, not an empty suit.
A facilitator's role is to facilitate (from the Latin word meaning "to make easy") the process whereby brilliance manifests -- not use their platform to foist their ideas on others.
In the best of all worlds, brainstorm facilitators wouldn't be the people who care the most about the topic. They wouldn't be the content expert, team leader, department head, senior officer, or anyone whose job is described by a three-letter acronym.
There's a HUGE difference between facilitating and leading a brainstorming session. Leaders get people to follow them. Facilitators get people to follow the yellow brick road of their own imagination.
Here are four classic ways that some brainstorm facilitators manipulate the ideation process. Any of them familiar to you?
1. They verbally judge ideas as they are presented
2. They scribe only the ideas they approve of
3. They spend more time pitching their own ideas than listening to the ideas of others
4. They develop only ideas consistent with their own assumptions
Unleashing Business Brilliance
August 01, 2014
Brainstorm Facilitation Training DNA
Recently, my company (Idea Champions) been getting a lot of requests for our brainstorm facilitation training and are in the process of putting together a simple website about this service. In the meantime, here is an update on what it's all about:
Conducting Genius is an interactive learning experience that provides participants with the skill, experience, and confidence they need to become effective brainstorm facilitators. Knowing that people learn best by doing, we've designed the 1-3 day training to be as interactive as possible -- one that includes the following eight customizable elements:
1. Master Trainer Tutorials: At selected intervals, we deliver two kinds of topic-specific tutorials: 1) The art and science of brainstorm facilitation and; 2) The right use of ideation tools, techniques, and processes.
2. Discussions: Most tutorials are followed by lively discussions in which participants explore ways they might apply the content of the tutorials to their own brainstorm facilitation challenges on the job.
3. Brainstorm Technique Practice: Conducting Genius participants learn and practice 8 - 20 idea generation techniques. Each technique is applied to a specific "How can we?" or "How can I?" question participants will have identified, pre-training.
4. Experiential Challenges: Time allowing, we engage participants in hands-on action learning activities to challenge assumptions, spark new insights, and move them deeper into the learning mode. These challenges renew, refresh, and reveal new topics to explore.
5. In-Training Brainstorm Practice Sessions: Participants get multiple opportunities to lead the group through ideation processes of their own choosing, applying newly learned skills and techniques to business-specific challenges.
6. Intake Interview Greenhouses: In the advanced version of the training, participants take a deeper dive into the pre-brainstorm session prep process, practicing their client intake and needs assessment skills with real clients, real-time.
7. Guest Group Brainstorming Sessions: In the advanced version of the training, participants lead real-time brainstorming sessions, on the third day, with pre-selected in-house teams. Each session is debriefed and guest teams share their feedback.
8. Review of Facilitator Guidebook: Since there is significantly more material included in the 140-page Facilitator Guidebook than can be covered in the training, we review the book at the end of the course, alerting participants to sections most relevant for them to study, on their own, post-training.
What our clients say
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Upgrade Your In-House Brainstorm Facilitation Skills the Simple Way
Want to upgrade your change agents' brainstorm facilitation skills? Looking for a simple way to open the creative floodgates in your organization? Here's one way.
Read this if you think brainstorming is bogus.
Covers for our new 142-page facilitator guidebook
Blue State Digital in the House!
Blue State Digital -- a new media strategy and technology firm that specializes in online fundraising, advocacy, social networking, and constituency development has invited Idea Champions to custom design and lead a three-day brainstorm facilitation training for some of their movers and shakers in September.
We're honored and are very much looking forward to working with these fine folks to see how they can make their brainstorm sessions even more engaging and effective.
How did they find us? By googling "brainstorm facilitation."June 11, 2014
Brainstorming Website Coming Soon!
June 07, 2014
Got Ideation Process?
May 16, 2014
Strike Up the Bandwidth!
May 12, 2014
Time to Upgrade Your Brainstorm Facilitation Skills
YOU are creative. Always have been. Cool, new ideas come to you all the time. In the shower. On the way to work. Even in your dreams. Where others see problems, you see possibilities. You're flexible, funny, and think on your feet. Which is why you were tapped to lead brainstorming sessions in your company.
You said YES of course, and are glad you did, but over time your sessions have become... well... er... uh.. a bit predictable. Same people. Same process. Same creeping sense that you need to try something different.
After all, you're in the business of the new. Right? That's how you've won new business in the past -- and that's how you've kept your clients coming back for more. Yes?
Towards that end, I invite you to take a few minutes to reflect on the following questions:
"How can I upgrade my brainstorm facilitation skills?"
"How can I learn new ways to tease out brilliance in others?"
"How can I become a catalyst for breakthrough thinking?"
PS: Here's how
25 Reasons Why Brainstorming Sessions Fail in Your Company
Whenever I ask my clients to tell me about the quality of their company's brainstorming sessions, they usually roll their eyes and grumble, noting several of the phenomena below.
Recognize any of them in your organization?
1. Lame facilitation
2. Wrong problem statement
3. Unmotivated participants
4. Hidden (or competing) agendas
5. Insufficient diversity of participants
6. Addiction to the status quo
7. Lack of clear ground rules
8. Sterile meeting space
9. No transition from "business as usual"
10. Lack of robust participation
11. The extroverts take over
12. Habitual idea killing
13. Attachment to pet ideas
14. Discomfort with ambiguity
16. Endless interruptions
17. People come late and leave early
18. Premature adoption of the first "right idea"
19. Group think
20. Hierarchy, turfs, and competing sub-groups
21. Imbalance of divergent and convergent thinking
22. No tools or techniques to spark creativity
23. Inadequate idea capture methods
24. Premature evaluation
25. No real closure or next steps
Who can you meet with, this week, to explore new and better ways of improving the quality of your company's brainstorming sessions?March 29, 2014
That Big Beautiful Idea of Yours
What big, beautiful idea of yours needs just the right touch of collaboration, support, and immersion to see the light of day? Your next step? And when will you take it?March 19, 2014
A Cool Online Creative Thinking Tool
Got a challenge? Need a big idea, insight, or breakthrough? Try Idea Champions' online creative thinking tool, The Idea Lottery. Absolutely free. You'll need a question to brainstorm and about 10 minutes.February 12, 2014
When a Brainstorming Session is Not a Brainstorming Session
I finally figured out why so many brainstorming sessions fail. It's the exact same reason why so many marriages fail. The couple shouldn't have gotten married in the first place.
Many brainstorm sessions that are called never should have happened. And while some kind of meeting may have been appropriate for the invitees to attend, the form of a brainstorm session was the wrong form.
So, before you call your next brainstorming session, pause for a moment and ask yourself what the real purpose of your meeting is. If it's not the generation and development of new ideas, your meeting is not a brainstorming session, but one of the following.
1. INFORMATION SHARING MEETING: A chance for participants to update each other on projects, download knowledge, share research and other changes impacting their common project. No new ideas are really needed here -- just the real-time sharing of information.
2. TOPIC DISCUSSION MEETING: Some meetings need to be nothing more than talking head sessions. These kinds of meetings give people a chance to air out opinions, share questions, and listen to each other. There's nothing wrong with these kinds of meetings -- but they don't necessarily require brainstorming for them to be effective.
3. TEAM ALIGNMENT MEETING: Sometimes teams simply need to get together to get on the same page. While this may include the sharing of information, it may also be a time for people to connect, clarify their collective vision, and reinforce their commitments. While this may seem "soft," it's not. Unless your team is connected, it's unlikely they will be effective. Getting your ducks in a row usually requires more discussion than brainstorming.
4. FEEDBACK MEETING: Sometimes it's useful for team members to give and receive feedback to each other. This kind of meeting can be as simple as a few "report outs" and then some honorable sharing of feedback. Ideas may emerge in the process, but a feedback meeting is not a brainstorm session. Ideas are less important that the ability of participants to listen to each other and speak their truth.
5. DECISION MAKING MEETING: Sometimes the only reason for a team to get together is to make decisions. Who's doing what? Why? By when? If your team has no agreement or process in place about how it makes decisions, these kinds of meetings won't go very well -- unless, of course, it's already been established that the "boss" or "team leader" is the one with the power to make decisions on behalf of the team.
Make sense?February 08, 2014
BRAINSTORMING TIP #19: First Diverge, Then Converge
If you are gearing up for a brainstorm session, allow me to offer you one piece of advice: first diverge, then converge.
Beyond the muffins, coffee, and people arriving fashionably late, brainstorm sessions are composed of the two aforementioned "erges."
Divergence is the act of "getting out there" or what Webster refers to as "an infinite sequence that does not have a limit." Go, Noah, go! Divergence is a deviation from the norm -- kind of like your brother-in-law.
Without divergence, brainstorm sessions are flat, boring, one-dimensional, and a roaring waste of time.
But if the only thing you do is "get out there," never coming back to home base, all you will have done is tease participants by temporarily stimulating their imagination.
That's why you need divergence's accountant-like cousin convergence -- the act of "coming together toward one point."
Divergence and convergence -- like day and night, hot and cold, peanut butter and jelly, are both necessary if you want your brainstorm sessions to really hum.
How to spark divergence?
Well, for starters, invite inspired people, define a compelling challenge, establish a sense of urgency, express humor, give participants permission to take risks, and make sure the facilitator knows what they're doing.
Convergence can be achieved in many ways, as well, including verbally summarizing session results, restating the most popular ideas, voting, identifying champions, action planning, and clarifying what will happen to new ideas, post-session.
For more on why most brainstorming sessions don't work (and what you can do about it), click here... or here if you don't want to click any of the aforementioned hyperlinked words, click here.
The brainstorm sessions we lead
We can teach you how to facilitate breakthrough sessions
What our clients say
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How to Prepare for Brainstorming
Aficionados of the martial arts will tell you that a competition between two opponents is determined in the bow -- the moment before the "action" begins. Savvy gardeners will tell you that if you really want to get a harvest, pay special attention to preparing the ground.
And I will tell you this: if you want your brainstorming sessions to bear fruit, be mindful of the time before anyone pitches even a single idea.
Because it's the few days before a brainstorm session begins -- the "incubation time" -- that's often the difference between brilliance and boredom.
Unfortunately, most companies don't get this.
What typically happens?
Someone with a pressing need for new ideas invites a few people -- usually the "usual suspects" -- to brainstorm. If, perchance, this idea-needing person has taken the time to write a brief and send it out, few people read it. And those who do, read it more like the back of a cereal box than anything else.
Either no one does the due diligence required to adequately prepare for the meeting or the due diligence that is done (i.e. research, articles, surveys) is ignored, under-valued, or ridiculed.
People bop into the meeting over-caffeinated and under-prepared.
Yes, ideas are generated, but they are often only a collection of pet ideas -- ones that have long-ago been generated. Game changing concepts are few and far between, not because the people in the room are incapable of game changing concepts, but because there is no common, fertile ground of understanding, no incubation, no real readiness for what is about to transpire -- or could.
Hey, if you're going to jog a few miles, warm up first. If you're going to boil an egg, heat up some water. Make sense?
The problem is this: most people equate preparing for a brainstorm session with "work" -- totally boring work -- and since they already feel overworked, the preparation for a brainstorm session is often perceived as optional -- kind of like what teenagers think when their parents ask them to clean up their room.
OK. Enough ranting. Here's the deal: If you want a meaningful return on the effort you and your team put into brainstorming, establlish a better, agreed-upon, process for what happens before people show up at one of your sessions.
And while there is no magic formula for this, there are definitely guidelines and principles that apply to most situations. Below are ten to get you started. If you see something missing, add it. If you can think of a better way to proceed, do that.
But do something. If you don't, you and your team will have accomplished little more than becoming the poster children for one of my favorite quotes: "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."
BRAINSTORMING PREP GUIDELINES:
1. Be sure you have framed the right question.
2. Only invite people who really want to participate.
3. Identify the research and pre-work that needs to be done before -- and have someone actually prepare it.
4. Send the invitation and the pre-work at least three days before your session begins.
5. Set the expectation that a careful review of the pre-work is a pre-condition for attending.
6. Make sure that the facilitator has cleared their head and cleared a space for the brainstorming session to happen.
7. Begin the meeting on time. If someone shows up late, don't let them in. (And everyone stays for the duration).
8. Begin the meeting with a crisp review of the pre-work. Make sure everyone understands the basics before jumping off into never never land.
9. Eventually (sooner rather than later) make sure that everyone in your company understands and agrees to the "pre-brainstorming" protocol.
10. Keep this protocol as simple as possible (but no simpler, as Einstein liked to say). And continually refine it as you learn what works and doesn't work.January 13, 2014
Want a Brainstorming Breakthrough? Get the Right Question!
There's a simple reason why so many brainstorm sessions are a waste of time. The problem statement being pitched to participants is the wrong one.
This is not surprising -- especially when you consider how little time most facilitators put into preparing for a session.
Here's what happens: The person who calls the session is usually scrambling -- overwhelmed, over-caffeinated, and running from one meeting to the next. Out of breath, they pitch the topic to the group, but the topic is either vague or secondary to a more essential challenge that remains unspoken.
G.K. Chesterton, one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century, distilled the phenomenon down to 13 words. "It's not that they can't see the solution," he said. "They can't see the problem."
Then, of course, there's also the phenomenon of perception bias.
Pitch a challenge to an IT person, and it will be seen as a technology problem. Pitch it to a CFO, and it will be seen as a financial problem. Pitch it to a marketing person and it will be seen as a branding problem.
Or as a wise man once said, "When a pickpocket meets a saint all he sees are pockets."
If you plan on running an ideation session any time soon, don't just stumble into the room and pitch a vague topic to the group. Do your homework. Make the effort to identify the REAL issue before asking for ideas. If it's the WRONG QUESTION you present, no amount of idea generation is going to make a difference.January 07, 2014
Why a Diversity of Participants in a Brainstorming Session is So Important
"Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. Unfortunately, that's too rare a commodity. A lot of people haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions." -- Steve Jobs
One of the challenges of facilitating a successful brainstorm session is ensuring that the right people are in the room, so you have enough "dots to connect." Defining what "right" means, of course, is, itself, a challenge.
Yes, you want a high level of expertise, talent, and decision making authority in the room. But these qualities often result in the "usual suspects" syndrome -- inviting the same people (or the same kinds of people) again and again to your sessions.
If you only invite the usual suspects. it's likely that your brainstorming sessions will get stranded on an island of group think.
People with the same history, careers, education, expertise, interests, and worldviews will typically approach a challenge in the same way.
This is, shall we say, not optimal.
But there's a simple antidote to this phenomenon -- one that is freely supplied by Mother Nature. Diversity.
With a seeming overabundance of species on Earth, it would take a total destruction of the planet for all Life to cease. Short of total destruction, at least some species will continue and, in a few hundred million more years, who knows what new kinds species will emerge?
In the same way, diversity is an excellent survival strategy for a brainstorm session. Not just the diversity of techniques used, but the diversity of participants.
Diversity adds value in two ways: First, it gives the group more dots to connect (as Steve Jobs notes above). And, second, it increases the appearance of creative tension in the room, an important variable in any kind of solution-finding process. Indeed, it's in the super-charged space between two varying points of view where the greatest potential for breakthrough ideas exists.
Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.
So, in order to get "more dots" in the room to connect, as well as more creative tension, it's your responsibility to invite a varied mix of participants.
Include the old hand and the beginner, the expert and the novice, the white collar and the blue collar worker, extroverts and introverts, the right brainers and the left. The more varied the group, the better. And, I might add, the more challenging your facilitator role will be.
Animated by a cornucopia of views, experiences, and knowledge, the chances of your brainstorm session succeeding will increase exponentially.
-- Val VadeboncoeurNovember 24, 2013
Improv to Improve Idea Generation
It can be said that a brainstorm facilitator plays many roles during the course of a session. Conductor, diamond cutter, and traffic cop are three of them. But the most obvious role is that of actor, and not just any kind of actor, because there really isn't a set script... but an improv actor making theater magic out of a specific "situation" or "set-up".
In both brainstorm facilitation and improvisational theater, you're trying to tap the creative imagination of people in order to create something new. In both, you need to loosen up the habitual thinking and behaviors of the "audience" so they become more than just passive observers, but active participants.
And it is the right use of technique that helps with this transformation.
One of the most powerful techniques is Groundrule #1 of Improv Theater -- Say Yes!
Say Yes! means that you immediately accept, without judgment, whatever is being offered to you by a fellow actor.
In Improv Theater, for example, if someone says "Hey! Look at that enormous pink elephant!" your response should be something along the lines of "Wow, that's the biggest pink elephant I've ever seen. Are those real diamonds on that tutu or just rhinestones?" -- a response that takes the basic premise and expands on it.
Conversely, if you're going to be a good improv partner, your response to your fellow actor's opening premise should not be "That's not a pink elephant! You must be drunk."
The first, receptive response opens up many possibilities. The second, dismissive response abruptly ends the scene or turns it into a tug of war between the two actors -- both of whom now become competitors and opponents instead of allies and co-conspirators.
When it comes to idea generation, experimenting with Improv Groundrule #1 can produce excellent results.
For example, a good brainstorming technique that generates a lot of good ideas quickly is a technique called "Yes, and..."
Here's how it works:
Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting in a circle of 6-8 people. You call on one person to come up with a new idea in response to a challenge or problem. Then, you ask the person sitting next to the first person to build on the initial idea by saying "Yes, and..." Then, you ask a third person to build on the second idea, beginning with "Yes, and..." -- continuing around the circle for as long as the process generates interesting content and ideas.
Even better, start with what you know is already an intriguing idea, perhaps something generated earlier in the brainstorm session, re-state it for the group, and ask someone to build on it using the "Yes, and..." technique.
You can run several rounds of this technique for the same challenge. Each time the technique will take you in a different conceptual direction.
Try it with many different challenges. Change the direction of the order within the group -- clockwise, counterclockwise, random, etc.
"Yes, and..." is fun, simple, and can quickly spark a lot of intriguing, new ideas. It will also sharpen everyone's improvisational acting skills in the process.
-- Val Vadeboncoeur
One Reason Why Brainstorming Fails
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.
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.
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
Virtual Brainstorm Facilitation Training
We've done it! We've belled the cat. We've created the perpetual motion machine of facilitator training. We've found the Holy Grail.
More precisely, we've figured out how to virtually train people to become savvy brainstorm facilitators!
And that means great cost savings for you and your company. No more booking hotel rooms, flights, and travel expenses. No more people losing work time by being on the road. No more full days lost to training, either.
We will come to you in a series of highly-engaging virtual online sessions to teach your people how to design and deliver breakthrough brainstorming sessions.
And these sessions will not be "off-the-shelf." They will be customized to fit the needs of your organization. Our simple needs assessment process will give us the information we need to know exactly how tailor our agenda to address the specific needs of your enterprise.
No one size fits all.
We can also adjust our schedule to match the schedules of your people. We can deliver in either one, two, three, or four-hour segments. And, depending on what type of program best suits your needs, we can schedule the training to happen quickly -- over a period of a few days -- or spread it out over six months.
With our extended program (3 - 6 months), participants get a chance to practice and incorporate each session's learnings between sessions -- held two weeks apart. In the intervening weeks, they'll have engaging assignments to do -- done individually or in teams -- to deepen and apply the learning on the job.
By the end of their time with us, they'll be ideation ninjas, ready for any challenge you throw their way.October 11, 2013
The Musical Dynamics of Brainstorm Facilitation
A well-facilitated brainstorming session is like a symphony -- or, at the very least, a really good performance of any kind of music.
Embedded in its DNA are dynamics (i.e. "variation and contrast in force and intensity") -- the skillful modulation of elements that fully engages a person's attention.
The opposite? Muzak.
Next time you listen to a piece of music, be aware of dynamics -- the various ways in which the composition holds your interest (i.e. rhythm, pauses, crescendos, harmonies, solos, and multiple variations of soft and loud).
As a brainstorm facilitator, you need to do everything in your power to keep the session as dynamic as possible so participants remain fully engaged -- poised and ready to respond.
If the session is boring (or takes a "dip" after a brief period of engagement), your chances of succeeding decline exponentially.
Towards this end, think of yourself as a "conductor" -- the one who guides a group of individual contributors ("soloists") through an artful process that ensures a quality experience and a meaningful outcome.May 24, 2013
Why Train People to Be Masterful Brainstorm Facilitators in 2014
April 20, 2013
Honor Your Unusual Suspects
One thing I've noticed during the past 25 year of leading brainstorming sessions for a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies is the weird tendency many organizations have to under-value their "unusual suspects" -- people who don't show up on the "creative thinking radar screen" but have a ton of value to add.
Here's my story about one such moment at AT&T just published in the Huffington Post.January 26, 2013
Why Train People to Become Masterful Brainstorm Facilitators
September 07, 2012
25 Reasons Why Nothing Happens After a Brainstorming Session
How many times have you participated in a brainstorming session, only to be underwhelmed by the utter lack of follow up?
Unfortunately, in most businesses, this is often the norm.
1. The output of the session is underwhelming.
2. No one has taken the time, pre-brainstorm, to consider follow-up.
3. No criteria established to evaluate output.
4. No next steps are established at the end of the session.
5. No champions are identified.
6. The champions are not really committed.
7. The champions are committed, but under-estimate the effort.
8. The ideas are too threatening to stakeholders.
9. No one is accountable for results.
10. The project leader doesn't stay in contact with key players and "out of sight, out of mind" takes over.
11. The "steering committee" takes their hands off the wheel.
12. The next brainstorming session is scheduled too quickly.
13. The output of the session is not documented.
14. No sponsors are on board.
15. Participants' managers are not supportive of the effort
16. It takes too long to document the output of the session.
17. The output is not distributed to stakeholders in a timely way.
18. Participants and stakeholders do not read the output.
19. Bureaucracy and company politics rule the day.
20. Somebody, in the session, is disengaged and sabotages the effort.
21. Teamwork is in short supply.
22. Small wins are not celebrated. People lose heart.
23. Participants perceive follow-up as "more work to do" instead of a great opportunity to really make a difference.
24. Unspoken agendas take over.
25. Workloads are unreasonable. Even well-intentioned participants have no time to follow up.
What else should be on this list?
Excerpted from Conducting GeniusJuly 19, 2012
The AHA Man Makes an Appearance
January 31, 2012
Go Beyond Your Pet Ideas!
If your company runs brainstorming sessions, know this: too many of them have become veiled opportunities for people to trot out their pet ideas.
Because everyone is so ridiculously busy these days and real listening is at a premium, people use brainstorming sessions as a way to foist their pre-existing ideas on others.
And while this sometimes leads to results, it doesn't make best use of the opportunity a brainstorm session provides. The way around this phenomenon?
Give people a chance to express their pre-existing ideas at the beginning of a session. Clear the decks. Then use the rest of the time to explore the unknown. Woof! Woof!December 16, 2011
The Atlassian FedEx Day Goes Global
Atlassian is a very successful Australia-based software company founded in 2002. It has 400+ employees, with 125 of them in San Francisco.
It also has more than 17,000 satisfied clients including Google, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, LinkedIn, Pixar, Adobe, Hulu, Salesforce, UPS, Nike, and Coca-Cola.
Atlassian's software helps companies organize their data, track it, collaborate about it, and detect/fix bugs in their software.
Yeah, I know... I had never heard of them before either.
But those days may soon be over. Atlassian is fast becoming famous not only for their popular software development tools, but also for their rapidly-spreading innovation creation playfully named "FedEx Day".
Very simply, FedEx Day is a 24-hour innovation immersion event that enables employees to brainstorm, prototype, and pitch their emerging innovations.
Why is it called "FedEx Day"? Because the goal of the 24-hour blitz is for participants to originate, develop, and deliver new products, new services, or business process improvements overnight.
FedEx Days typically begin on a Thursday afternoon at 2:00 pm and end with a spirited round of presentations delivered exactly 24 hours later.
The experience is energizing, empowering, and exciting -- with the company supplying pizza and beer (this DID originate in Australia, after all) for everyone on Thursday night.
The end result? Lots of useful and successful innovations that would not have materialized had employees been required to stick with their "day jobs."
Atlassian has been, internally, conducting FedEx Days (now done quarterly) since 2005. But this program is now spreading like a Charlie Sheen Twitter meme. Many other organizations, like Yahoo, Symantec, Flickr, Hasbro Toy, and the Mayo Clinic have all begun conducting their own versions of FedEx Day.
And, NOW, for the first time ever, Atlassian is offering to send their own FedExperts to one deserving company in order to help them conduct their own FedEx Day.
Explains Jonathan Nolen, one of Atlassian's FedExperts, "It's so exciting. The possibilities are endless. Everyone has great ideas and this gives them a way to unleash the power of those ideas. And it happens all over the organization. It's incredibly inspiring to see this happen in real time."
Atlassian's Annelise Reynolds agrees. "This is part of a new trend in business where companies are understanding the importance of engaging and energizing their employees. It works wonders for both the companies and their employees. The employees have fun and the companies get some great innovations."
Entering is simple. All you need to do is fill out this entry form and make a convincing case for why YOUR company or department could use a 24-hour innovation blitz.
Deadline is December 21st, 10:00 PM Pacific Time! Good luck! And good on ya, mate!
- Val Vadeboncoeur
Virtual Brainstorm Facilitation Training
Let me take a wild guess:
The brainstorming sessions you attend (or lead) leave something to be desired. You keep hoping they'll get better, but they don't. There's too much idea killing. Too much wheel spinning. Too much sound and fury, but not enough results.
You've thought about bringing in an outside training company, but they all seem a bit odd -- not to mention the fact that you can't find the budget -- or the time.
Not to worry. That's why we've created a new, flexible, virtual training program that makes it profoundly easy for you (and others) to learn the art and science of facilitating brainstorm sessions that work.
WHY HIRE US?
1. We've been facilitating brainstorming sessions since 1986.
2. We've worked with just about every industry (and mindset) on Planet Earth.
3. Our clients get tons of value.
4. We know how to bring out the best in aspiring facilitators.
5. We can customize the training for your specific needs.
6. We love what we do and are really good at it.
7. Our training materials are top-of-the-line.
8. We've created really cool online tools you can use in your sessions (live or virtual).
9. The co-designer of the training is the author of an award-winning book on the creative process.
Intrigued? Contact us today. Or if not today, tomorrow. Or if not tomorrow, the day after.December 03, 2010
What You Can Learn from the Bloody Mary
In 1939, a Russian immigrant owned the rights to distribute vodka in the U.S. His efforts bombed, big time. Americans weren't interested in a colorless, odorless alcohol.
Depressed, he sold the rights to Heublein, who asked themselves: "What can we combine with Vodka to give it a distinctive taste and color?"
They came up with tomato juice and, voila, the Bloody Mary was born. Sales? Through the roof.
What most of us think of as an "innovation" is really just the elegant combination of two (or more) pre-existing elements resulting in the creation of a new, value-added product or service.
Want to try it for yourself? Click here for a cool, interactive technique.