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Are You Brainstorming All Wrong? Follow 4 Rules Instead

Hadley’s Intro:  Discover 4 Rules for brainstorming success

courtesy of Wall Street Journal Guest Post By Leigh Thompson.

One of the biggest mistakes teams make with
brainstorming is believing that the way to enhance
creativity is to just let everybody loose.

Leigh Thompson is the J. Jay Gerber Professor of
Dispute Resolution and Organizations and a
director of executive-education programs at
Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of
Management. She is the author of several books,
including “Negotiating the Sweetspot: The Art of
Leaving Nothing on the Table.”

Most businesses use brainstorming to generate new
ideas. Too many of them, however, don’t do it
right.

To illustrate, I conducted an informal in-person
survey of more than 50 executives and other
managers in one of my team leadership classes last
year. First, I asked: “How many of you use
brainstorming in your teams?” Every single hand
rose. Next I presented the four rules of
brainstorming—according to Alex Osborn, the late
founder of brainstorming and the “O” in
advertising giant BBDO—and asked my students if
they followed these. No more than five people
raised their hands.

I wasn’t surprised. Somehow, over the years,
“brainstorming” has come to simply mean a
free-for-all, where anything goes: One manager in
my class proudly proclaimed, “Our only rule is
no rules!”

WSJ
But that is exactly where so many groups go
wrong—believing that the way to enhance
creativity is to just let everybody loose. The
genius of Mr. Osborn’s brainstorming rules, by
contrast, is to create an environment where
thoughtful guidelines about the process liberate
people to think more creatively. Indeed, one study
found that groups coached to follow Osborn’s
rules—advanced in his now decades-old book
“Applied Imagination”—produced nearly 70%
more good ideas (as judged by independent raters)
than groups told to brainstorm without following
any rules.

Here, then, is a closer look at Mr. Osborn’s
guiding principles:

Rule #1: Invite the outrageous. Ideas that may
sound outrageous or outlandish can yield
high-value strategies and solutions because they
can liberate others to offer fresh thinking or
contain a bit of truth a team can build on. But
don’t simply tell your team, “Be
outrageous”; instead, be a brainstorming role
model by suggesting an off-the-wall idea yourself.
Another way to stir up out-of-the-ordinary ideas
is to invite an oddball or someone with a
distinctly unique skill set to join—say,
inviting a wedding-dress designer to be part of
the team of scientists and engineers trying to
design a better protective suit for healthcare
workers.

Rule #2: Don’t evaluate. Don’t judge,
criticize or even compliment ideas. Not
surprisingly, this is the rule that is most often
broken. We are in the Effusive Praise Era, but
when we shower praise on certain members of
groups—but not others—it’s pretty obvious
that evaluation is going on, which can lead people
to self-censor. One way to remove evaluation
altogether is to make contributions anonymous. In
a brainstorming session I held with a corporate
travel company, I immediately instituted two
rules: “No guessing and no confessions.” So
when ideas showed up on poster boards, no one was
allowed to guess whose they were or reveal their
own.

Rule #3: Strive for quantity. Encourage
participants to put forth as many ideas as
possible within whatever parameters have been
established. Research shows that groups told to
strive for quantity over quality not only generate
more ideas, they ultimately generate more
high-quality ideas, as well. Recently, I ran an
informal experiment with a client company. In the
first brainstorming sprint, I gave groups six
minutes to generate new product ideas. In the
second sprint, I told some groups to double their
output; other groups weren’t given this specific
goal. The results were astounding. Not only did
the “double your output” groups come up with
more ideas, the quantity goal pushed them to think
of extremely unusual ideas and innovative
combinations of ideas (more on that below).

Rule #4: Build on and combine different ideas.
Variety is the key to successful brainstorming.
The goal is to generate lots of ideas—see the
point about quantity above—then look for ways to
integrate and synthesize them, so the end product
or solution is greater than the sum. The key here
is to build on novel ideas suggested in the group,
not just “feasible” ones.

No one likes rules, so I believe it’s best to
frame Mr. Osborn’s “Big 4” as
“suggestions” or “guidelines.” So go ahead
and brainstorm—but in the way originally
intended.

*******************************************

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Hadley Finch

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