Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Brainstorm Meatloaf: awesome if you do it right

Image by Jeffrey W under Creative Commons license
Brainstorming has become synonymous with innovation. There have been hundreds of books and articles written about brainstorming.  Most recently, there has been some research showing that brainstorming doesn’t work.  This might resonate with you a bit because we’ve all come out of a large group brainstorm and thought ,”Wow, that was a waste of time.”  So is brainstorming total BS?  

All brainstorming is not equal. In the Great Depression, meatloaf was used to stretch the budget by mincing cheap meat and cheap grains with leftovers and then baking everything together to make it edible again.  As such, in some circles, it gained a bad reputation as some really bad meatloafs were made (and mostly eaten.)  However, taking the fundamental concept of meatloaf, it is possible to make an incredible dish by applying good ingredients and scientific experimentation (no really, go to this link.)  In the same way, the diligently planned and well facilitated brainstorm of today cannot be compared with populating a meeting with the first 10 people you run into in the hall, wriggling your fingers and shouting “Innovate!.”

It’s also true that  brainstorming ALONE doesn’t work, and that it doesn’t work for everything.  Groups are powerful ways to bring people with diverse backgrounds and skills together to find new pathways to solve problems.  They are not good ways of making decisions, creating action plans, gathering data, or designing and engineering something.  Similar to knowing whether you’re opening or closing the funnel, it’s important to know when brainstorming can be effective.

Here is a simple recipe for a great brainstorm:
  1. Keep it small -  Would an eleventh finger really help?  Five to six people is ideal.  Things start to break down past eight.
  2. Diversity is real - You’re looking for new perspectives, so gather people from different functional areas, roles, backgrounds, and yes, sometimes gender and race matter too.  You can’t bake a cake with just eggs (blend together one brown chicken egg, one white chicken egg, two duck eggs, and bake!)
  3. Define a narrow goal - When opening the funnel, it’s hard to broaden an already broad topic.  You’ll get better results the more specific you can make the problem.  “Come up with new baby products” is too general.  Try something like “Explore new ways to improve bottle feeding for babies between 6 months and 1 year old.”
  4. Pick a facilitator - Just because a brainstorm has people in it does not make it a democracy.  A designated facilitator will allow someone to keep the brainstorm on track.  Otherwise everyone will waste time debating “what should we do next” instead of thinking innovatively.  Other roles can be designated as well such as note taking and time keeping.
  5. Keep it physical - A boardroom setting will result in a boardroom culture.  Avoid presenting slides and having everyone sit at a table facing one direction.  This shifts people from creating to evaluating (which is what we do when looking at slides).  Instead, get people standing and drawing.  Interpretive dance and finger painting highly encouraged.
  6. Make it safe to be crazy - Bad ideas are good.  You must turn off the internal censorship to allow new thoughts to surface.  Trebuchets are a great solution to most problems.  And in this case, it’s okay to mention Nazis.
  7. Say the obvious - Don’t think of a pink elephant.  Ha!  Now you just did.  Obvious ideas are often held back because they’re boring.  But then they stay in your mind (and they’re on EVERYONE’s mind).  So get the obvious ideas out there and on paper.  Then move on.
  8. Keep it moving - Go for speed, not perfection.  It’s great to throw out crazy ideas if we can capture them and move on.  However, rat-holing, or getting stuck on a single topic, can suck up all the time and energy in a brainstorm.  Even worse, the fear of rat-holing creates self-censorship where people “don’t want to go there.”  If the facilitator can’t keep things moving, designate a time-keeper or use a stopwatch.

Yes.  Much more can be said on brainstorming, but for now, go forth and experiment.  It’s the best way to learn to cook, and the best way to practice innovative thinking.