Occasionally, there comes a time when it is important to open up the your mind to the seemingly far-fetched. To welcome in possibility. To place aside doubt. In organizations large and small this time is usually attached to a brainstorming session. I can almost hear the collective groan. Come on, does brainstorming even work?
The past couple of years have delivered some pretty serious debate on the topic. Journalist and popular writer Jonah Lehrer — who has been largely discredited by scandal since — had a widely distributed and wildly popular piece called “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth” published by the New Yorker, the summary of which is explained in the video below.
The blogosphere stepped up to support or counter Lehrer’s position.
Pro: “Brainstorming is the Fax Machine of creativity: a method that just won’t die despite the existence of better methods.”
Con: “To say that brainstorming is a waste of time is like saying talking is a waste of time. Too general a statement and too simplistic.”
On the con side was Scott Berkun’s scathing reply, “In Defense of Brainstorming: Against Lehrer’s New Yorker Article.” I’ll admit that I’m in the Berkun camp on this one. That is, I believe that brainstorming is a tool that, when used well, can generate a wealth of creative ideas — “idea volume,” as Berkun puts it — whether those ideas are carried forward or not.
While it was created for groups, for today’s Motivational Monday, I’m asking you to consider its power for you as an individual. Specifically, how can you brainstorm your way to new answers to old questions?
You are to take a key question and use brainstorming to creatively problem solve possible answers. You’ll free yourself from your usual processes — with its full proposals, budgets, and staffing plans — and its related roadblocks to get at what is simply imaginable as solutions.
Set the Scene
A distraction-free place is, in my opinion, the first critical choice in letting the ideas flow. This is about giving yourself the permission to focus on being unfocused — and, let’s be honest, that’s hard to do when you’re interrupted by a ringing phone at the office or kids, partners, and pets underfoot at home.
My advice: get away from both home and office! Since, ahem, bodily functions may serve to distract, make sure you’re neither too far from a kitchen nor a bath. Sure, sure, taking a hike out to the center of the wilderness seems like a fine strategy for letting yourself be creatively wild but unless you’re a Boy Scout it has its limitations. Think library or a quiet cafe instead.
If you actually do have the time and permission to do this at the office, at least choose a room — a small meeting room or conference room, for example — that’s got distraction-free wired in.
As a writer — and I admit that I may be a bit biased on this point — I believe simple pen and paper are the best tools for brainstorming. Yes, yes, mindmapping tech has come a long way and there’s an app (or ten) for that. But here’s why you want to avoid doing this with your laptop or desktop computer: Facebook. Or those darn new email alert messages. Or Skype and any other easy-to-reach-you communication platform. Avoid the tech!
If, like me, you think A4 and letter-sized paper can also be a bit limiting, feel free to pull out the big butcher paper, sticky notes, and flipchart markers instead. Think BIG DREAMS, BIG PAPER.
Let It Flow
When advertising executive Alex Osburn published his book on the brainstorming technique in 1953, he saw it as a disruptive force to the conventional creative thinking strategies of the day.
By now, we have all learned the concept’s core principles: defer judgment and reach for quantity. The latter is not possible without the former so, please, turn off your inner nag — mine is Mrs. McDoubtful — with all of the why-it-won’t-work critiques. There’s a time and place for analyzing, costing, prioritizing, and more. That time is not now.
For now, let the ideas flow! Just thought of something a little wacky? No problem — write it down too.
It may be at odds with the whole let-it-flow mandate, but I also recommend setting a timer on your activity. It doesn’t matter to me what that time is, although I think a full-day of brainstorming sounds unnecessarily extravagant for this “focused unfocusedness” activity.
Remember, too, that this exercise is about answering just one key question. As tempted as you may be to use brainstorming to open the floodgate of ideas against all of your most persistent challenges, don’t let that dilute the strength of your very focused creative work.
Wrap It Up … In a Shiny Red Bow to Yourself!
Opened up the brain tap? Time to turn it off. Put down your pencils and markers. Push back from the desk. Give yourself a mental high five for taking the time to let your creative juices flow. Allow yourself a nice little break before you begin to think about next steps.
Yes, there are next steps.
Remember Mrs. McDoubtful? There’s no need to rush her in the door just yet. But as you gather up your things — pulling the big paper down from the wall and detaching various sticky notes — feel free to organize your materials so that your brainstormed ideas are given a fair shake. Associate. Categorize. Clip. Bind. File in funky-colored folders — the choice is yours about how you want to move this forward.
Yes, forward. As Berkun reminds us in his piece, idea generation is just a first — but vital — step to decision making.
So onward you go!