Creative thinkers don’t like the word "brainstorming" anymore. It relies on a thunderstorm metaphor—a sudden swirl of energy that gets everybody’s attention for a moment, then passes by, dissipates, and leaves nothing behind.
And that describes a good brainstorming session.
"I think in most brainstorms, there’s actually very little brain and hardly any storm," says Keith Yamashita, principle at SY Partners, a transformation consulting firm. "Brainstorming is really the art of thinking—collaboratively. And thinking takes work. It takes preparation. And it takes a different view."
Creative thinkers see a better way to idea-jam—and a better metaphor. Individuals need to come together to swarm over a problem, but then the swarm doesn’t break up and disappear—it shifts, changes, keeps moving and re-forms, building on what it’s done until it solves one problem and then carries what it knows to the next one.
A better word might be: brainswarming. Here’s how it works:
A study of the teams that produced Broadway musicals from 1945 to 1989 yielded an interesting insight: If the bulk of the team had connections and a fluency with each other, the show’s probability of success shot up. It turns out that when people know each other, they interact efficiently and feel safe enough to let ideas fly.
But the best mix turned out to be a familiar team spiced up with newcomers. They had to be connected, but not too deeply connected. Michal Pasternak sees this at creative agency Huge. She has a solution: "We inject new team members to get the naiveté back up again."
The lesson: Cultivate a tight-knit core swarm and get them into a room with fresh recruits who will say something to shake up the familiar.
The worst place to jam on new ideas might just be the place where most companies today send people to jam on new ideas: the traditional conference room.
PayPal’s offices in Boston are set up to eliminate the distinctions between where people work on their own and where people think together, says PayPal’s David Chang. Desks roll and are moved around. Instead of having one or two conference rooms, PayPal has 40 spread everywhere, plus another 10 lounges for gathering—swarming—and knocking around ideas. IdeaPaint covers almost every wall so people can spontaneously brainswarm wherever they happen to be.
Multiple writing and sketching surfaces are key. If everyone in the session has a pen and access to a writing surface, barriers to sharing ideas fall away. Collaboration expert Dan Roam preaches a gospel of drawing pictures to solve problems—the more pictures from more people, the better.
Too many idea sessions start with a rule that there are no rules. Think of anything, the group is told. And then everyone sits there stumped—if you have infinite choices, what do you choose?
"If you add some process, then brains in the room feel like they know where they’re going," says Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.
"A little structure is actually an enabler. It’s the creative power of constraint."
Remember that a swarm isn’t a swarm if it’s spread all over. But put it in a box—then you’ve really got a swarm.
Stop being so warm and fuzzy. The concept of "every idea is a good one" is nice for kindergarten, but less so for business.
However, this requires finesse. Because the last thing you want in the swarm is fear. Brainswarms need both a surfeit of ideas and constructive debate about those ideas. Bad ideas can lead to good debates that then lead to better ideas.
There are lots of ways to make sure the ideas don’t get lost. Assign someone to synthesize and write up the swarm’s best ideas. If the ideas are all over the walls, take photos. If at all possible, leave the drawings and scribbles on the wall, so swarmers can come back to them, talk about the ideas, touch them up, draw new connections.
And then, importantly—don’t stop. That’s the vital difference between brainswarms and brainstorms. Brainswarms never end.
—Kevin Maney is a best-selling business author and journalist who has covered technology for more than 20 years. "The New Art of Brainswarming™" is available now while his latest book, a biography of Indian tech pioneer Shiv Nadar, will be published by Penguin Books in late 2013.
[Image: Flickr user Christian Holmér]