Does Brainstorming Work?

Many people engage in unproductive activities called “brainstorming” that, quite honestly, have given brainstorming a bad name.   As with most things in life, there is a right way and a wrong way to do something.  With brainstorming, failing to put the work into getting the right people in the room and asking the right questions is akin to building a house without first laying a foundation – it goes up fast but rapidly deteriorates into an utter waste of time.

Next time you need a creative solution to a problem, avoid the temptation to say “we need to do some brainstorming around this” and begin throwing out ideas.  Instead, spend some time in the following areas to create a solid foundation and positive outcome:

  • Select the Right People – Keep the group to 3-7 people and involve the people that have the requisite in-depth knowledge of the problem. This seems obvious but people often mistake knowledge with power or position.
  • Ask Good Questions – You need to ask all the Who, What, When, Where types of questions to gain an in-depth understanding of a problem and the various problem facets.
  • Break it Down – A problem that is too broad will ensure that ideas are numerous, shallow and don’t really address the critical issues.  Break it down into smaller sub-problems.  Your solutions will be more creative because it’s easier to think outside the box if you shrink the size of the box.
  • Cull the List Down – After ideas have been generated, make decisions to narrow your list from many ideas to a “green list” of ideas that are worthy of further consideration so that people know the direction of activity to come.

Many of these actions (and a few more) are noted in an excellent McKinsey Quarterly article titled “Seven Steps to Better Brainstorming” by Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne.  The authors offer numerous examples from McKinsey’s work with strategy teams and you can find the article here.  (Free registration is required to access the full article.)

Next time someone says “let’s brainstorm”, don’t take the bait.  Instead, spend the time to build the foundation and give brainstorming the good name it deserves once again. 

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