An Unexpected Technique for Better Brainstorming

G U E S T  A R T I C L E

How often has this happened to you? You’re in a meeting and someone says, “let’s brainstorm some ideas.” A facilitator or volunteer scribe scrawls a title across the top of a sheet of flip chart paper using an old whiteboard marker that’s been abandoned in the boardroom. The extroverts make tentative suggestions while the introverts wait for inspiration and opportunity to share their input. Two or three ideas in and someone starts to critique what’s been put forth. The facilitator tries to clarify the idea with the originator: “so what I hear you saying is this,” to which the frustrated originator says, “actually, no, that’s not what I’m saying.” Awkward. The only thing worse than this scene is the dreaded reporting back in plenary.

Brainstorming – we’ve all done it, but not necessarily well.

My latest musings on the subject were stimulated by feedback on my recent post Brainstorming à la speed dating. In commenting on that post, Jeremiah Stanghini provided a link to a bookmark that led to an interesting Harvard Business Review article: Research: For Better Brainstorming, Tell an Embarrassing Story.

According to the article’s author—Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University—the term brainstorming was coined by Alex Osborn, an American advertising executive. Osborn recommended four rules for brainstorming:

·      share any ideas that come to mind;
·      build on the ideas of others;
·      avoid criticism; and
·      strive for quantity, not quality.

Subsequent research confirmed the soundness of these four rules, says Thompson, and added four more:

·      stay focused on the task at hand;
·      don’t just say an idea, explain it;
·      when ideas run dry, restate the problem and encourage more thinking; and
·      prompt those not talking to contribute.

Thompson and colleagues Elizabeth Ruth Wilson and Brian Lucas did further research. They wondered whether people could be primed, before the brainstorming began, to generate better ideas. They did so by asking half the participants to describe a time when they had felt embarrassed and the other half to share a story about when they had felt proud.

In one experiment, they asked each group of storytellers to individually create a list of new uses for a paperclip. In another, they asked participants to work in small groups to come up with new uses for a cardboard box. In both cases, the individuals and teams who had shared embarrassing anecdotes outperformed those who had shared proud moments.

Thompson describes the second experiment:

“My colleagues and I carefully watched these conversations unfold. The people told to embarrass themselves were initially taken off-guard and even apprehensive. But inevitably someone would jump in (“OK, I’ll go first….”) and, within minutes, the trios were laughing uproariously. The people told to boast had, by contrast, no trouble starting their conversations and appeared more composed. However, there was little laughter and only a few polite head nods on the teams.”

The research led to a new rule for brainstorming:

·      Tell a self-deprecating story before you start.

Thompson notes, “As uncomfortable as this may seem, especially among colleagues you would typically want to impress, the result will be a broader range of creative ideas, which will surely impress them even more.”

What was lacking in Thompson’s article was an explanation as to why swapping self-deprecating stories before brainstorming would lead to more and better ideas.

Based on my experience, I would say that the difference is relationships. One of the concepts I picked up from NRCan’s Learning Organization Community of Practice was one called Relationships, Possibilities, Action. The theory was that you can’t get to action without considering possibilities (which is what we do when we brainstorm), and you can’t get to possibilities without establishing relationships (which is what we start to build when we share stories, particularly self-deprecating ones).

Once we’ve shared an embarrassing story and been accepted by our colleagues despite the less-than-flattering tale, we’re more likely to be willing to be vulnerable and to throw out all sorts of ideas, even ones that might seem a little out there. And that ultimately makes for the best brainstorming.

Also available on GCconnex

Jennifer Hollington

Jennifer Hollington is senior executive in the Canadian public service who writes a weekly blog called Café Jen‎ on the theme of success at work. You can reach Jennifer using our contact form.

Other article(s) from the author
How to find a job when you’re just starting out
(published on October 13, 2017)
Productivity vs Learning
(published on August 21, 2016)

Copyrighted Material: Article has been produced with permission from the author. Title picture is not associated with the original writing and is property of ASQ Ottawa Valley Section.



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