Sunday, February 01, 2009

Brainstorming Doesn't Necessarily Help

At my last permanent job, an expert on brainstorming techniques came in to give a talk to the design and development managers. See, we had a phase of our dev process we optimistically called "brainstorming," the tiny moment in which ideas should be generated--regardless of plausibility and regardless of source--for the problems we wanted to address in the release. I think I invited this fellow in to talk to us all about tricks for doing this well.

Oh, my naivete! The response to the talk was not as expected. The last thing this development group wanted -- particularly the managers-- was ways to generate more ideas. Like many companies, we had way too many ideas, and way too few resources to assign to them; and way too many bullheaded managers who wanted to try it their way, not some peon's way.

Bob Sutton, author of the famous No Asshole Rule about which I've blogged before, has a nice post that gets at this issue and others related to brainstorming. It's must reading, amid all the talk about "innovation" and idea generation that companies produce today.

Some of the most relevant quotes:

But I assert that brainstorming only makes a difference if it is part of a larger create process, as you see at IDEO, Pixar, and other places that do real creative work. If the group doesn't do some preparation and doesn't use the ideas generated -- if they don't later battle over which are best, prototype some ideas, test them, try to implement them -- then it is just a bunch of useless ideas and perhaps a fun meeting. ... Brainstorming is something that doesn't work well in organizational cultures that are very authoritarian, where people view meetings as places to crush others and their ideas, where people have trouble with ambiguity, or where people do not feel otherwise psychologically safe.
At that old company, I think we changed the name from "brainstorming" to something dull but honest, like "idea discussion." And even that was optimistic in an unsafe, authoritarian, argumentative culture.


Joshua said...

My current workplace does "pitches" instead of brainstorming. Everyone on the team is required to act like an entrepreneur: choose a concept (or have one assigned), research it, and present your best case to the group for ten minutes.

I appreciate the naked power politics this method makes plain. The boss must find your pitch convincing in order for your concept to advance. It's not a very democratic process, but it's realistic.

Lynn said...

Interesting! I like the honesty in that too. What bothers me most in organizations is hypocrisy about what's really going on, let's just be honest and get on with it, instead.

Unknown said...

Thanks very much for the Sutton reference. His book has passed the "three recommendation" rule, so now I must buy it.