We can safely sweep aside the meetings and failed attempts at brainstorming, where a call for ideas is often met with awkward silence. Aside from the fact that you can’t expect a flood of ideas from employees who are otherwise taught to stifle their creativity and individualism, you also can’t expect creativity to flow like an on/off tap. You can, however, create an environment that discourages groupthink. Groupthink, or the practice of thinking and making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility, is a crippling condition that plagues most brainstorming sessions – simply because team members are otherwise conditioned accept their circumstances. In such an environment, there is little to motivate employees to offer dissenting opinion or contrary ideas if they’re otherwise stripped of their workplace autonomy.
Clearly, your first team pow-wow should be about injecting autonomy back into your team. After that, you can try hacks for better brainstorming sessions. Unfortunately, conventional thinking concentrates on physical changes. Yet there’s only so much communal spaces and open floor plans can achieve when it comes to better brainstorming methods.
Enter “the 10th man.”
World War Z, the epic Zombie movie with Brad Pitt, introduced a novel idea called the “10th man”. The 10th man was sort of a devil’s advocate. His role was to contest majority opinion. So for example, if 9 out of 10 leaders all agreed that the sky was blue, then the duty of the tenth man was the question a blue sky. It’s brilliant and I wish more industries would adopt the practice. So in honor of the “10th man”, I introduce a blog by Harvard Business Review titled “Why You Should Stop Brainstorming.”
The article, written by idea-generator Tony McCaffrey, argues that “no study has proven that brainstorming works well, even thought it has been the go-to method for idea generation since 1953.” The process of sharing of ideas at a time, by talking, is (per McCaffrey) seen as rather inefficient. Other problems in traditional brainstorming sessions include a tendency for extroverts to dominate introverts – even when a skilled facilitator is available to mediate the session.
As an alternative, McCaffrey and his colleagues introduce a process called Brainswarming. Using insects as an illustration for more effective communication, McCaffrey notes how ants for example use signals in their environment as problem solving cues for their colony. Conversely, people can also leave signals (their ideas) for others to use without coercing or intimidating the unspoken chain of communication. This model reduces internal power struggles.
In Brainswarming, goals travel downward into sub-goals while resources are combined to grow upward; solutions emerge naturally at the intersection of the two. In a real life application, McCaffrey proposes a problem faced by a power company. The goal was to remove ice from power lines. The known resources (at the bottom, growing upwards) included ladders, workers, and poles. The bottom-up thinkers were asked to consider how these resources could be used and to think of new resources if applicable. Meanwhile, top-down thinkers were asked to start refining the goal, which led to sub-goals including: shake lines, prevent ice from forming, and/or warm lines.
The group was then asked not to speak, but to instead quietly drum up solutions. The process of breaking goals downward while building resources upward led to a natural meeting of the minds. For example, the goal to remove ice broke down partially to shaking lines, which broke down again to using loud sounds to shake the lines – meanwhile bottom up resources grew to include sonic guns, an idea that connected with using loud sounds.
The Brainswarming session yielded up to a 115 ideas in 15 minutes, versus 100 ideas over the course of one hour. McCaffrey believes that the switch from talking to writing on a structured graph a strong contributing factor to a rich problem-solving thought catalog.
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