Running a successful company sometimes requires priorities that actually conflict with one another. Time and again I’ve encountered a current of tension between processes that generate creativity and those that build efficiency. If the tension isn’t mitigated, one will dominate, slowing the drive to the overall goal.
One instance where creativity and efficiency collide is the process of brainstorming.
Efficiency challenge: When you get people in the room for a brainstorming exercise, you don’t want to waste anyone’s time—particularly if they’re your clientele but also if participants are your own employees. Time is literally money.
Creativity challenge: The very concept of brainstorming can be a bit cringeworthy. It’s like “classwork for adults,” so if you don’t allow for a certain level of imagination, you’ll end up stymied.
The following techniques help balance the two.
Time to Brainstorm Better
1) Brainstorm for questions, not answers. This is an approach I’ve used with success, most recently in a client gathering where product messaging was the focus. Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, renames brainstorming as a “question burst” process consisting of three steps:
- Set the stage. This step identifies the challenge, but quickly and at a high level that doesn’t constrain or direct the questioning process.
- Brainstorm the questions. Limit this step to four minutes and aim for about 15 questions. Keep them short, simple, and fresh.
- Identify a quest—and commit to it. Choose a few questions that give you pause or even make you feel a bit uncomfortable. Commit to at least one and create a near-term action plan.
Choose a few questions that give you pause or even make you feel a bit uncomfortable. Commit to at least one and create a near-term action plan.
Gregersen says this method provides a safe space for introverted individuals by prompting people to “depart from their usual habits of social interaction” (dominant vs. subordinate). Companies like Amazon, ASOS, IDEO, Patagonia, Pixar, Tesla, and Zappos regularly use this technique to unearth innovative solutions.
2) Start with bad ideas. Similar to the question methodology, starting with “bad” ideas also flip-flops a narrow, answer-driven approach—and it supports those who are apprehensive about speaking up among people in power. If you’re the moderator of the group, it’s helpful to throw one on the table first as an example. The playful and open atmosphere created by this approach is generally more conducive for generating ideas that have legs (whether those ideas come from a “bad” pitch or anything that arises after).
3) Try Brainswarming. Coined by Tony McCaffrey, this technique actually avoids the “discussion” portion of brainstorming and instead utilizes a problem-solving graph where participants can leave their written ideas (resources, sub-goals, actions) in a structured way for others to build upon. McCaffrey claims this process produces up to 115 ideas in 15 minutes versus 100 ideas in 60 minutes of traditional brainstorming. Again, a technique like this prevents vocal domination by one or two extroverts.
Does Creativity Actually Breed Efficiency?
Bill Burnett, product design and behavior expert, has a slightly different view of brainstorming in relation to efficiency, in that the more creative and “crazy” you are with your ideas, the more efficient you’ll ultimately be. So, it’s not so much a matter of balancing the two, but that one begets the other.
It takes a truly wild idea to make a conceptual leap and open up a new, more productive pathway.
Burnett’s reasoning is brain-based. We are cognitively hard-wired to operate within a radius of reality. Think a hamster on its wheel, confined to that space. It takes a truly wild idea to make a conceptual leap and open up a new, more productive pathway. While you may not apply that kooky notion to the matter at hand, it doesn’t mean it won’t have merit down the line.
What Burnett does concur is that traditional brainstorming is effective for generating lots of diverse ideas, from which you can “name and frame”—clustering them into different categories and creating an actionable framework.
Common Misses in the Brainstorm Process
As with any process, there are always some best practices to adhere to, as well as certain missteps to avoid. Here are a few of the latter:
- Excluding people outside your group. You need to get fresh ideas to avoid the “not invented here” disease.
- Excluding senior decision-makers until the very end.
- Tossing away promising ideas that may not make it to the top this time around.
- Forgetting to get group feedback on the actual process of idea generation within your company/group.
- Letting the boss drive the conclusions—why bother having a brainstorm session at all?
And, one more: Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos suggests not inviting too many people to participate—as he puts it, no more than what two pizzas will feed.
Brainstorm Outcomes: Art or Science?
The outcome of the process tips more towards art than science.
An ideal brainstorm session effectively balances creativity and efficiency. The outcome of the process tips more towards art than science. Even the most fruitful gathering needs to weigh the quantitative "winner" against qualitative backing. The most popular idea in the room may have the least ability to fully support your brand, whereas a moderately championed concept could be the most powerful business influencer when groomed with a little creative enrichment.