There are lots of problems with brainstorms, but the main one is they don’t go on for long enough. They usually stop when people have run out of ideas and you get those embarrassing silences. But those embarrassing silences are when your unconscious starts engaging on the problem and is a vital part to coming up with great ideas.
The way brainstorms are practiced in most companies today is still almost exactly the same way that was recommended by their inventor, advertising executive Alex Osborn, over 60 years ago. Business and our understanding of how the brain works have both moved on so much in that time, and yet we’re still hanging onto this old technique for so many of our idea-gathering sessions.
Here’s how to rethink your brainstorm so it goes for longer than you're used to, but proves much more productive once it’s over.
The fact is, brainstorms do have a useful part to play in solving problems. They can be very useful at the start and the end of the process. The trouble is that a lot of the time they’re used as the only part of the process.
Here are some of the problems with the standard brainstorm:
- The more extroverted characters often dominate the session.
- Early ideas tend to disproportionately influence the direction the session takes.
- You listen and focus on other people’s ideas and don’t spend time thinking about your own. When we hear someone else’s solution, it’s like a magnet and it pulls our focus towards it.
- After the idea generation process, the decision makers tend to choose the moderately creative over the highly creative ideas.
In his 1953 book Applied Imagination, Osborn introduced the concept of the brainstorm because he claimed it was more effective in generating ideas than individuals working alone.
But around the same time Bill Bernbach, of the advertising agency DDB, also introduced the idea of a team of people working together to solve ideas. It’s just that his idea of the "creative team" involved only two people. And they wouldn’t just try to come up with ideas in one-hour times slots, but day in, day out. In most companies these days, Bernbach’s approach is still pretty rare.
Instead, the Osborn-inspired brainstorm has become the dominant model for problem solving in business, because it’s easy and quick. You get everyone together for an hour, throw ideas around, and then the boss picks the "best" one. You know at the end of the hour you’ll have some solutions to your problem, and you can all move on.
But it’s unlikely that the brainstorm has created the best solution. If you genuinely want good ideas, borrow the model from creative teams whose job it is to come up with ideas on a daily basis.
So here’s the model I would suggest trying instead of the standard brainstorm. Think of it as a "brain marathon."
1. Make sure the signpost is pointing in the right direction. Really understanding the problem you’re trying to solve is vital to finding a good solution. This is where a typical, quick brainstorm can be useful. It can feed in as much background information as possible.
2. Think, think, and keep thinking. Get people into small teams of two, three, or four and then allocate a decent block of time for them to work on the problem. The very minimum should be a whole morning or afternoon.
If you can get out of the office, that’s even better. "Lots of the best ideas occur when camaraderie and chemistry have built up between employees, and breaks from the office together—even for just a day—can make all the difference," Richard Branson has said.
After an initial outpouring of ideas you’ll find yourself drying up. That’s normal. This is the stage when brainstorms usually stop. But don’t think it’s any reflection of your thinking abilities—it happens to all creative thinkers.
That point when you get stuck and feel like you’re not getting anywhere, that’s when you’re hacking your brain and getting your unconscious—and its huge processing power—involved. It’s important to stay together and not drift back to your desks to check emails.
3. Narrow down and decide. Once you’ve spent the morning working on a problem, take a break from it and then get back together for an hour at the end of the day to review your ideas.
This is when you need to narrow down your ideas and pick your favorites. Instead of your boss picking from a long list in a brainstorm, you should to narrow down the choice to a short list first. This way you get to argue out among yourselves the benefit of one idea over another and, in doing, so create a solid argument for each idea.
Brainstorms might come in convenient half-hour and hour time slots, but ideas don’t. So if you’re really serious about finding a solution to a problem, give the brain marathon a try.
This is an edited excerpt published with permission of the publisher, Capstone, a Wiley brand, from Brainhack: Tips and Tricks to Unleash Your Brain's Full Potential by Neil Pavitt. Copyright (c) 2016 by Neil Pavitt. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.