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Ditching the whiteboard and adopting two brainstorming practices helped my company thrive. Here’s how.

Brainstorming has gotten a bad rap, and some critics say that it encourages groupthink. However, if you do it properly, you can generate incredible results for your company.

Ditching the whiteboard and adopting two brainstorming practices helped my company thrive. Here’s how.
[Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash]
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If we compiled most company “about us” pages into a Bingo game, we’d fill the cards with words like “innovation, creativity, and passion.” These are all wonderful traits. Modern companies need to innovate, and creativity is a powerful tool. There’s just one problem: workers are overwhelmed.

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In a 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time U.S. employees, 23% say they’re “always or very often” burned out. Another 44% said they “sometimes” feel this way. There are complex forces behind this trend, but it’s safe to assume that burnout doesn’t lead to innovation. Original thinking takes time—and strategic brainstorming techniques can help your organization step back and address meaningful challenges.

What is brainstorming, exactly?

While brainstorming has become a generic term, it actually refers to a specific technique outlined by BBDO advertising partner Alex Osborn in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination. Osborn set out four rules for group innovation: suggest as many ideas as possible, aim for outrageous solutions, build on the suggested ideas, and don’t evaluate or judge ideas during the session.

In recent years, Osborn’s version of brainstorming has come under fire for promoting groupthink, drowning out quieter personalities, and generating fewer solutions than individual work. That’s why my company uses two different strategies—one for groups and one for individuals.

Run a hack week

Hack weeks are essentially team brainstorming exercises. They’ve generated some of our most significant innovations—and they’re not just for tech startups. Tuning out the day-to-day noise to focus on one problem can nurture innovation across your entire organization.

At JotForm, we kick off on Monday with an open-ended question. Think about where you want to push the boundaries: What could transform your business by next year? What would amaze your top-tier customers? Tackle a juicy problem and provide some constraints. Hone in on a specific product or process, for example, or set a timeline for the solution.

Next, we spend four days thinking, sketching, coding, and collaborating. Our employees work in cross-functional teams of 4-5 people. Each member has a different role, such as design, development, UX, or data science. This ensures that they consider every angle. Most importantly, no one has to manage their everyday responsibilities because everyone hits pause for a week.

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Friday is Demo Day, when each group presents a working prototype. It doesn’t matter if it’s buggy or incomplete. We encourage outlandish, playful thinking. As Albert Einstein said, “if at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” We also encourage good-natured competition between teams. Unlike typical sticky-note-and-marker sessions, Demo Days always uncover a few kernels of genius that we seize and develop.

Embrace a little boredom

Stay with me here: boredom is a surprisingly effective way to foster ingenuity. Researchers from the University of Central Lancashire discovered that when study participants completed boring activities—such as reading numbers from a phone directory—before a more challenging task, their creativity soared.

The researchers suggest that daydreaming during boring tasks stimulates both imagination and divergent thinking: “The act of daydreaming [provides] individuals with the opportunity to re-examine a problem or situation that is preoccupying their mind as many times as they wish, in varied ways and each time incorporating new information and possible solutions.”

If you’re imagining an office of yawning, clock-watching employees, that’s not what we’re aiming for. “Productive boredom” is the goal. For example, encourage staff to sit with their thoughts for a few minutes between meetings. Provide quiet spaces for reflection and daydreaming. Our teams also love to walk. Pick a familiar route, so the setting fades into the background, and novel thoughts can creep in.

Tackling less-stimulating tasks before creative work can also replicate the study results. Whether you’re strategizing solo or preparing for a hack week, finishing tedious tasks first can prime you to release some pent-up creative energy.

Finally, don’t underestimate a vacation. Of course, you won’t be whiteboarding on the beach, but downtime recharges the mind. “Rest is not this optional leftover activity,” author and Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang explains in an interview with Scientific American. “Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”

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Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.