Brainstorming 3.0: learning to walk, run, and fly in ideation

A headshot of Steve Denning

by Steve Denning

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When a group of people need ideas, their first instinct is often to gather for a brainstorming session. In today’s everyday business operations, the term ‘brainstorming’ has become so ubiquitous that it is hard to believe that brainstorming was only popularized in 1953 by advertising executive Alex Osborn in his book Applied Imagination.

While brainstorming is a fine method to bring a team to a decision, businesses today need more effective ways to ideate and arrive at solutions to their most pressing challenges. Here is how your team can walk, run and then fly through the creative process.

Walk: Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members. On paper, brainstorming seems like a fairly effective method for ideation.

Brainstorming, according to Osborn, needs an absence of criticism and negative feedback. This should sound familiar - we’ve all been told that ‘no ideas are bad ideas’ in the brainstorming phase!

Related Read: 9 things we've learned about innovation + creativity since 2009

While brainstorming does work for many situations, this absence of criticism can quickly create a flaw. Whereas the ‘no criticism’ rule is supposed to open up the floor to new ideas, there is a high likelihood of groupthink. People ultimately want to get along and not rock the boat, so individuals might not always be willing to provide more ideas if they feel that the group has reached consensus on the ideas put forth.

The Hawthorne effect, also known as the Observer effect, is when individuals modify their behavior when they are aware that they are being observed. In a brainstorming session, where the group always stays together, the Hawthorne effect can occur when members of the group may not actually like the ideas being put forth, but they might not want to speak up in this environment because they are being watched by the others.

Another thing that we have to work against with brainstorming is the decline of creativity as we become older. Naturally, everyone is born creative. As children, we all present more ideas for problems that come up. However as we grow older, we tend to opt for tried-and-true solutions as opposed to completely new ways of doing things. People do not realize that as they grow older, they begin to reject creative ideas. It becomes harder for us to generate and present ideas that are novel.

Run: Creative Problem Solving

Even Osborn recognized that some of the aspects of brainstorming needed improvement. He worked with academic Sidney Parnes to develop the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process (CPS). Osborn and Parnes applied a critical aspect to ideation that resulted in much better ideas.

CPS is a step above brainstorming and recognizes that there is a need for both divergent and convergent techniques in order to come up with the best ideas.

Divergent thinking is equated with creativity - sparking ideas, exploring possibilities.

Convergent thinking is equated with intelligence. It’s the analyzing of ideas, reflecting and improving upon them and making decisions.

Divergent and convergent thinking are both important and necessary parts of creative problem solving, but they can’t be done at the same time. You must explore first, and refine second.

In order to avoid groupthink, there needs to be some constraints in place for creative ideas to fully form. We need a collaborative environment to challenge each other, but we also need individual time to absorb, reflect and think about some of the ideas that were put forth before returning to the group.

The question at hand must be asked in a different way to get past the obvious, because the audience must challenge what they know and broaden their point of view, which can lead to rich ideas.

Unmet needs are hard to articulate, so they must be teased out through a variety of activities. These activities promote each individual’s way of thinking, and find a balance between emotion (divergent) and logic (convergent). Divergent thinking also promotes coming up with many ideas and approaches to tackle a problem, revealing and exploring any possibilities around the issue. Convergent thinking often involves making one choice or selection, and reaching one solution.

At Chaordix, one way we promote creative thinking is through an activity in which individuals brainstorm alone before presenting their ideas to the team. For example: say a reporter is writing an article about your company and needs your help with a headline and photo to use. Each individual works on their responses in isolation before sharing their choices with the group, and explaining why they made those choices. This is a powerful exercise because it helps each person distill their vision for the headline (convergent) and in the sharing phase, reveals their thoughts about the company vision through the keywords they used to search for the photos (divergent).

Other activities to promote creativity can include word analysis, photo association, analogy and metaphor, attribute listing and recombination, and more. These activities will help provide insight into the unmet needs of each member and enable them to work through solutions and a plan of action.

Fly: Design Thinking

Once you’ve mastered CPS, you can take ideation to the next level through Design Thinking:

Design thinking is solution focused and action oriented, and takes the task-oriented facets of CPS and adds a layer of research in a user-centric workflow (also referred to as Human-Centered Design).

Read Next: 5 ways to use design thinking for a better customer experience

Throughout the Design Thinking process, participants must empathize with and understand the end user. Additionally, as ideas and solutions are presented they are prototyped and tested, often with the end user already involved. Once an idea or solution is chosen, users are also engaged in the optimization and implementation of the product. The end user (often the customer) is involved at all junctions.

Today’s Innovation teams are more familiar with design thinking as it is now most often used by large enterprises for product innovation.

Soar: The Chaordix Approach

Ideation, Your Way

There is not a single correct process for ideation. Brainstorming, Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking all employ techniques that will make group ideation processes work better.

At Chaordix, we use creative challenges that are inspired by innovation workflows like CPS and Design Thinking. We are able to take an ideation process to an online environment and scale a typical focus group - reaching remote groups that enterprises normally struggle to reach, and bring them into the same (virtual) room to effectively ideate and solve business problems.

By taking your ideation from brainstorming, to creative problem solving, to design thinking, you can walk, run, then fly with your group on your way to new products and solutions.

To learn more about Chaordix's unique approach to innovation + creativity, check out our Participation Platform for product innovators and/or customer engagement professionals. 

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