Tag Archives: brainstorming

Has Brainstorming Become the IBM Selectric® Typewriter of Creativity?

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Is it time to send brainstorming to the Smithsonian Museum to put on display with other antiquated business tools such as typewriters, overhead projectors, slide carousels and fax machines?

I believe if advertising executive Alex Osborn – who is known as the father of brainstorming – were still around even he’d be disappointed that brainstorming has become ineffective in today’s business world. Its ineffectiveness has many business consultants and academicians encouraging companies to no longer conduct brainstorming sessions because they are a waste of time. In his book, Your Creative Power (1940), Osborn outlined in detail how to brainstorm and included guidelines with an extensive flowchart. Unfortunately, over time the basics he described have been ignored or overlooked and now cause many business people to roll their eyes at the thought of participating in yet another brainstorming meeting.

Osborn’s concept – and the ultimate success he derived as an ad exec from the process – was based on the theory that if you brought a group of people together from different backgrounds and with different experiences you will end up with a wealth of great ideas. It makes sense. However, a study conducted at Yale University in 1958 (and many more studies since then) revealed that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone.

So, should we throw brainstorming away? Is it as outdated as typewriters in today’s business world? Or, can we revive brainstorming and make it a productive critical thinking tool once again that spurs creativity? These are serious questions that we must ask especially since many work groups still engage in brainstorming sessions to solve problems and develop new ideas but are sadly disappointed by the results. Here are some suggestions to salvage and reinvigorate Osborn’s original brainstorming technique:

Limit the size of the group – Keep your brainstorming session to seven people or fewer. Many times if the group is larger, some people will take advantage of the “free ride effect” or “social loafing” and sit back and watch other people do all the work. In short, they sit there texting or playing Candy Crush® and don’t participate.

Create a “creative environment” – If you want people to be creative you have to set the mood which makes them feel creative. You wouldn’t expect a group of chefs to prepare a gourmet meal by putting them into studio apartment-sized kitchen with limited pots and pans and cutlery. You need to put them in a facility that allows them to showcase their talents. The same holds true for a management team. Most people are running from one meeting to another and by putting them into a typical stale corporate conference room and expect them to be creative is futile. The furniture and the walls are screaming at them to “think inside the box” and maintain the company’s status quo. Plan on preparing the meeting room in advance to elicit excitement and cause a “paradigm shift” in thinking. Consider the following:

  • Rearrange the furniture – or move the furniture to the hallway and have everyone sit on the floor.
  • Bring in toys for the meeting participants to play with, such as Play-Dough®, Nerf Balls® or other Dollar Store-type trinkets.
  • Make everyone write with crayons on construction paper or large colored Sticky Notes®.
  • Bring in music which will help people relax and forget about tasks – for a little while – that they need to do when they leave your meeting.

Set ground rules – Don’t start by saying, “Here’s the problem. What ideas do you have to solve it?” Implement some of Osborn’s original guidelines which led to his success:

  • Set a goal for the number of ideas you want to identify and a time limit for the actual brainstorming. This creates a sense of urgency and a deadline.
  • Defer judgement during the actual brainstorming session. Don’t comment on any idea until the brainstorming part of the meeting is over.
  • No “Killer Statements” (i.e. “That is a stupid idea.” “You’re out of your mind,” etc.)
  • Encourage “freewheeling.” Ideas that are way “out of the box” can sometime yield way to more “grounded” solutions.
  • No idea is a bad idea – Capture EVERY idea uttered on a flip chart or white board.

Schedule time to warm-up – Professional athletes don’t just run out onto the field (or court) and just begin playing. They warm-up and stretch. Give your team a chance to warm-up by brainstorming on an unrelated, non-business problem, such as, “How many ideas can you come up with for empty tin cans?” This will get the creative engine in their mind revved up and prepare them for the primary concern about which you called the meeting.

Don’t select an idea in the same meeting you created it – You don’t have the facts available to you in the meeting to decide if an idea will actually work or not. Assign ideas to people to gather relevant information so the team can accurately assess the ideas at a later meeting. If not, you may eliminate ideas based upon assumptions, opinions and guess from alleged subject matter experts or “authority” in the room.

Allow people a few minutes to brainstorm individually before opening the group brainstorming session – Introduce the problem and give people five minutes to brainstorm on their own. Then go around the room and record the ideas they identified. This will give the group a head start and get people thinking. Then open the floor up to the typical group brainstorming session.

When you go the extra mile and adhere to Osborn’s original concept, you too, can be as successful as he was and help avoid throwing brainstorming into the category of outdated business tools.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Filed under Creativity, Critical Thinking Tools, Group Effectiveness, Problem Solving, Uncategorized

Foster Creativity by Neutralizing its Enemies

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Everyone can agree that creativity is a crucial ingredient in the success of any organization. CEO’s demand it because they know creativity is a strategic weapon in the war against the competition.

However, within most organizations there are people – let’s call them enemies – who perpetually squash creative thought and ideas – some do it unconsciously, while others see it as their duty to protect the organization from failure, excess spending, and misuse of resources or poor allocation of time.

In my experience there are usually four distinct enemies of creativity for which I am always on the lookout during a creativity session (a.k.a. brainstorming session.) They are:

The Intimidator – This may be your boss’ boss, a subject matter expert, or someone who just sucks all the air out of any room in which they are. Whenever they are around other people will embrace and support the “norm” for fear of retribution or ridicule. Thus, the intimidator causes “in the box thinking,” sometimes without opening their mouth. Just their presence is enough to cause people to suppress their creativity.

The Standards Protector – This person is easy to spot because they are always reminding you, “That’s not the way we do things in this organization.” They are the self-appointed protectors of tradition and standard business practices.

The Risk Avoider – Some might refer to this person as the “Devil’s Advocate.” This person is always looking for “alleged” risks and will smother every new idea with “assumed” negative consequences before a new idea has a chance to breathe.

The Creature of Habit – If it requires change, this person will do whatever it takes to protect the status quo. He – or she – hates change. Change upsets their mental psyche and causes them to spend hours thinking about the pain a new way of doing something will cause them to endure. They will be the ones kicking and screaming the most.

You can protect your next creativity session by following these simple rules:
1. Defer judgment on all ideas until you have completed your brainstorming. This means no comments on any idea until the end.

2. Set a goal of the number of new ideas you want and set a time limit. Aim high in number of ideas. Quantity does encourage quality. Set a short time limit, such as 10 minutes. People work well under pressure. Appoint a timekeeper or have a digital stopwatch visible to all.

3. Don’t ask of each idea, “Will this work?” In most instances you do not have the facts in the room to make that determination. You need to leave your creativity session and begin to gather facts which will then allow you to decide if an idea will work. If not, you are encouraging decision making with assumptions and guesses. This is when all four enemies will devour and discredit any idea that has slightest smell of being creative.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Drop the Anchor and Promote Creativity

When I’m working with a group of leaders who are looking for the secrets to innovation, I ask them two questions:

1. True or False? The population of Turkey is 7 million.
2. What is the population of Turkey?

Let me guess. You were expecting something more exciting. Perhaps you haven’t thought very much about the population of Turkey. In fact, for a particularly sorry, and funny, example of how little some people have thought about certain countries, checkout this video from “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader” (hint: NOT this person!)

The truth is the above questions about the population of Turkey have a lot to do with how you innovate.

Consider the groundbreaking research published in the journal Science back in September of 1974. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman wanted to test a hypothesis. So, they asked two groups of people a slightly different question about Turkey’s population. To one group, the population in the true/false quiz was stated as 5 million.

For the second group, it was 65 million.

Researchers demonstrated that the number presented in Question #1 (True/False) greatly influenced the response to Question #2. In fact, the second group when presented with the higher figure in Question #1 (65 million) guessed the population to be twice as large as those presented with the smaller figure. This is a phenomenon that the researchers called “anchoring.”

The same phenomenon plagues our attempts at innovation today. We host brainstorming meetings under time pressure. As ideas are offered, we latch on to one of the first ideas that seem interesting. We might even discuss its ease of implementation. To get things back on track, the facilitator will ask, “OK. What other ideas do you have?”

But it’s too late. The group has already anchored on the idea that was discussed, innovation slows to a halt and the remaining ideas tend to stay similar to the idea that was discussed in detail.

If you would like to overcome the negative effects of anchoring in your organization, try these helpful tips during your next idea generation session:

1. Avoid Clarification – When ideas are offered during brainstorming, you may be tempted to ask someone to clarify their idea. Instead, move on to the next idea. Discussion is the precursor to anchoring, and you must establish clear separation between time devoted to offering ideas, and time devoted to discussing them.

2. Set A Goal – During your brainstorming sessions, establish a goal for how many ideas you would like to generate. This will keep you focused on speed, and reduce the likelihood you will stop and discuss the suggestions. For even complex problems, 30 ideas in ten minutes is certainly achievable.

3. Beware the “Fallacy of the Deadline” – When time is tight, brainstorming seems like a frivolous activity. Anxiety increases and we tend to latch on to the first idea that sounds feasible. The truth is, once a problem is well-defined, idea generation does not take much time. Set aside specific time for “out of the box” idea generation (15-20 minutes) where anything goes, and assure everyone that discussions of implementation and action planning will soon follow.

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Positive Discussions Encourage Creativity

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

In the past several years I have worked with the IT departments for several Fortune 500 companies. With each company I have encountered depressing stories about unproductive and highly negative interactions that have taken place in their “post implementation review” meetings – known in the IT vernacular as a PIR. A PIR is conducted at the conclusion of the implementation of an IT project for continuous improvement purposes. The objectives of these meetings include identifying areas where improvements can be made to the implementation process for the next project. The agenda usually includes three focal points 1) discuss the outcome of the most recent project, 2) identify successes and opportunities, and, 3) brainstorm potential improvements when planning the organization’s next big initiative.

Seems innocuous enough, right; maybe even productive.

But the actual meeting can be anything but productive. In a room full of high-achievers, people shine the light on all of the trouble spots and create a laundry list of things that went wrong. Brainstorming soon morphs into “Blame Storming”. Everyone leaves the meeting bruised and battered.

On the surface, our focus on problems and trouble spots seems to be in keeping with the spirit of continuous improvement. Unfortunately, when the meeting focuses just on what went wrong, it destroys your ability to be productive.

In his groundbreaking research on group dynamics, researcher Marcial Losada identified 15 high performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction, and peer reviews. He then recorded their interactions during planning meetings, contrasting their communications with 26 mid and low performing teams. He found that the mean “positivity ratio” of the high performers was three positive comments to every negative comment. For the low performing teams, the ratio was 0.4 to 1. He also observed that following bouts of negativity, teams lost their ability to flex their behaviors and to question appropriately. Team members simply devolved into an endless loop of self-absorbed advocacy for their own positions.

So what’s the learning for us? In order to encourage high levels of critical thinking in your team meetings, do the following:

1. Start with the positives: Unless we acknowledge that there are many strengths we can leverage, there is a danger that we will focus only on our weakness, closing the door to innovation. You want to remember and reinforce everything that went well so you can build on your success.
2. Spontaneously appreciate: When people are challenged, their natural response is to go into fight or flight mode. To keep people in the collaborative mindset necessary for effective problem solving, first identify the positives of all ideas before offering concerns.
3. Be generous: It’s hard to overdo it. Further research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Michigan found there to be an “upper limit” to positivity, but it doesn’t kick in until you reach a ratio of 11:1. But, make sure your appreciation is genuine, as a lack of sincerity in discussing strengths can do more harm than good.

Employ these tactics consistently at your next series of team meetings, and I am “positive” you will see improved results in your critical thinking.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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September 10, 2013 · 8:49 am