It’s no secret anymore that brainstorming sessions don’t really work. We’ve all been there—the day-long sessions that dull the senses, inspire daydreams, and encourage certain insufferable know-it-alls to flap their gums.
But giving up on the brainstorm would be like giving up on hammers after hitting your thumb (i.e. it’s generally not the hammer’s fault).
How wonderful and valuable would it be if you could actually make brainstorming work? Here are some tips to share with everyone from various expertise.
1. Be Prepared
A successful meeting in general has as much to do with preparation as with the meeting itself, and this is no less true when the goal is creativity. Productive brainstorming sessions don’t happen by accident—advance work is required, along with an understanding of how our minds really come up with solutions and ideas.
What are the criteria for a good idea, and the constraints you cannot break? If you need ideas that can be implemented in 6 months or less, or ones that don’t cannibalize your existing products, why not start by acknowledging those constraints, rather than a “blue-sky, unconstrained” session that won’t lead to anything useful?
You should also identify your existing “boxes,” or mental models, in advance. What are the assumptions you have always been making, the rules you are operating under? Which of them are inviolable, and which of them are ready to be stress-tested? If you list these existing boxes and then thoughtfully challenge them, rather than jumping straight in, the odds of coming up with something useful will be dramatically higher.
2. Don’t Just Think ‘Outside the Box’
In fact, new ideas aren’t even required for a successful brainstorm. Too often, managers assume that all they have to do is assemble “the team” in a conference room, provide food, encourage everybody to “think outside the box” and, presto, the creativity gene will take over.
The truth is that we can’t help but use boxes to interpret and simplify the world in front of us, so thinking “outside the box” doesn’t make much sense. Acknowledge that all of our boxes are only working hypotheses, subject to change, and be open to finding useful new ones instead.
You can then have a successful creative exercise without a single new idea, as long as you change an existing one.
La Poste, the French national mail service, redefined its core box as “trust” (from “we deliver the mail”) in response to declining mail volumes. This new box opened the door to a range of successful services, from safe-deposit boxes to digital ventures. And after this trust mission was broadly circulated, someone shared a document showing he had suggested these same digital services years earlier. His idea had been rejected in the past, when the overarching box was “we deliver the mail.” But under the new banner of “trust,” it made perfect sense.
3. Be Like Mario and Reinvent Yourself
Consider Nintendo Co., which was founded as a playing-card company in 1889 and is now a global leader in high-tech video apps, games, and consoles.
Basic assumptions had to change for that transformation to occur. Had Nintendo executives said, “We need to grow, so we should try something new. What should that new thing be?” they would have been engaged in classic brainstorming, trying to think outside the box.
Perhaps they would have succeeded. But they also might have concluded, “We’re a playing card company,” and focused on possible new card games, instead of eventually developing the best-selling Mario Bros. games or Nintendo’s Wii, which added a more active component to gaming.
Importantly, Nintendo didn’t necessarily invent the idea of video games; it was a question of changing the “box” that they used to look at themselves. But even for them, as the world continues to evolve, this new box will not last forever. Nintendo recently announced a foray into health care, building on their Wii experience, as a bid to reinvent themselves again following disappointing operating results. Surviving success can be just as difficult as succeeding in the first place.
4. Ask the Right Questions
A good brainstorming session should focus on a narrow and concrete question – preferably one that can be visualized. For example, instead of asking people for creative suggestions to improve your marketing, try to find ways to appeal to your specific target segment of, say, college-educated women in their 20s. Better still, imagine it is 2016 and a 27-year-old accountant in Seattle is raving about your product to all of her friends; try to find as many ways as possible that this came to pass.
Even when you think you have a solid understanding of the world in front of you, with reams of data about trends in your industry, customer research, competitive intelligence and the like, keep asking questions.
We had a retail client several years ago state emphatically that the future of their business would be in China. It sounded very forward-looking to say that. But then we asked who in the room had heard of TaoBao, Baidu and RenRen (the rough Chinese analogues of eBay, Google and Facebook, except that the growth rates were dramatically higher), and nobody raised their hands. In the years that followed, our client was indeed successful in China – but only after they started to ask themselves a lot more questions about what the marketplace was really like and began challenging their preconceived notions.
5. Expect the Unexpected
Above all, remember to embrace the ambiguity inherent in creativity. The process of identifying your existing boxes and changing some of them is an invitation to find surprising and interesting new ones, rather than ones everyone would expect – why not accept the invitation, and leave room for the unexpected?!