The brainstorming myth, and new ways to get the best ideas from a group

Two things connected in my mind today.

  • KM guru David Gurteen drew my attention to a New Yorker article challenging the “corporate myth” of brainstorming to get ideas.
  • And something slightly different happened during three different review meetings on Thursday: ideas started happening simultaneously on the review call and on our shared OneNote. We had verbal debate and the collaboratively written result (which happened after the call had finished) was a meld of different ideas that was stronger than the original ideas.

I wanted to write this down to straighten out in my mind what just happened, then come back to the New Yorker article. So here are three stories:

  • The tree: Conversation created more ideas
  • Lessons learned: Simultaneously written and verbal
  • The mockup review: Beyond the single linear conversation

The tree: Conversation created more ideas

Here’s the problem: We have had users choosing unsuitable values because of the “clever” way the choices are structured in a tree. So we were discussing the best way to restructure that tree of values to improve the user experience and get less bad data from the users.

  • In the audio-conference Paul verbally said: let’s delete the bits of the tree we don’t need. Flatten the tree to a single level. That sounded simple. J
  • Ian said: those bits are needed in another place. (Noone else had thought of that place) L
  • Paul said: so let’s create a separate branch just for our needs, regrettably duplicating data, and unfortunately all the code in all those places will have to change L
  • I said: how about we turn that upside down, create the extra branch for Ian’s place, then only that one place will have to change code

So we agreed that Paul would write it up on the OneNote, and share the link for the others to comment. J

Crucially, what he wrote came out differently, a further-improved suggestion with a much neater overall tree, better in the long-term J but all the code would need changing L Paul also included a second option, as contrast.

It was the combination of Paul’s two options that sparked a third option in my mind, which solidified as I started to write it down. Move and rename branches rather than creating afresh, avoiding the code change problem (because the code uses GUIDs) J So I added that to the OneNote and we’ll review it again on our next verbal call.

The point is to observe the way the ideas developed. Actual verbal conversation, indeed debate, contrasted potential solutions and revealed problems. The act of writing down a solution crystallised a further improvement in Paul’s mind, and a further option. Reading Paul’s options sparked a third option in my mind, which solidified by writing it down.

  • If we had forced ourselves to make a decision too quickly, the solution would not have been optimised.
  • If we had agreed it before writing something down, the best ideas would not have emerged
  • If we had simply asked Paul to document something for everyone to agree, that would have closed the process, and we’d have missed further improvements.
  • The shift back and forth between verbal and writing is good for the ideas process, but particularly well facilitated by OneNote as a shared writing space, and in fact by having virtual meetings where everyone can see and contribute simultaneously to the written as well as the verbal conversation.
  • The break between the meeting and reading Paul’s notes “reset” my mind from being locked into the solution I had proposed verbally, and I became open to thinking afresh
  • It didn’t take long – this all happened within a few hours in a single day

Lessons learned: Simultaneously verbal and written

Tony got the build team together to review the most recent release. What went well? What could we improve? Quite rightly he used a Learning Histories approach, thinking through the timeline in sequence.

Unfortunately my ideas did not come out in that order, although usually they were sparked by something that was spoken. So to avoid breaking into the conversation with my random thoughts I started jotting them down on the Lync comments pane we were using to view Tony’s Word document where he was making notes as we talked.

Tony realised what was happening, and quickly switched from Word to OneNote. That allowed me (and others) to put out-of-sequence thoughts and ideas in the right place on the shared page, even while the main conversation was at a different point on that page. I wouldn’t then forget them or disrupt the flow of the meeting by mentioning them in the wrong place. Having written something down, I was then free to get back to the conversation, join in. At least until the next random idea came to me.

The mockup review: Beyond the single linear conversation

Our supplier had produced a very rough mockup of the next set of changes to the solution ready for the already-planned meeting the next day.

I was hungry to see what they’d come up with, but since I knew I’d only see it with fresh eyes once, I made comments (on OneNote) during my first viewing, the night before the meeting and send out a link to the page.

By next morning, one of the technical guys in Bulgaria had used his timezone advantage to get in on the OneNote and respond (in a different colour) to some of my comments with suggestions and questions.

By the time the meeting started, I’d already responded to some of his notes.

During the meeting, we made gentle progress talking through the first couple of screens in the demonstration, but it became clear that meeting-based review, one item at a time, was going to be very lengthy.

As the conversation progressed systematically, I found that my thoughts and ideas were coming thick and fast, and were not aligned to the conversation currently happening. Solution: I could jot down my thoughts on the OneNote in the correct place in the flow.

Of course this style doesn’t suit everyone. We had at least one person on the call who vigorously prefers verbal to written feedback. Actually we need all sorts of input not just one method, and in this case BOTH could happen very easily.

There were two points where I found myself sharply challenged by another point of view. I felt wrong-footed at the time and I think I instinctively defended my original ideas.

Afterwards, writing them up on the OneNote, I found that on the first point, there were valid new things to consider and my ideas needed to completely change. I think we have a better way forward now as a result of the debate.

On the second point, it is less obvious which is best. So I wrote a table of pros and cons. It came out highly weighted in favour of the solution I believe is best. I’m hoping that the thoughtful debate will continue!

The New Yorker and brainstorming

The New Yorker article points out a few fallacies in the traditional forms of brainstorming, and makes some good points that seem to resonate with my stories:

  • In traditional brainstorming you were not allowed to discuss the ideas – just shout them out to be captured on a flip chart with no discussion. That does not fit with my experience in all the stories that more and better ideas come when conversation is part of the mix.
  • “There’s no such thing as a bad idea. No criticism of ideas is allowed.” In fact the evidence of research is that dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. It truly wakes up our minds. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”
  • Traditional brainstorming is about lots of very short simple phrases on post-it notes. My stories are about ideas in the context of structured review and specific problems, where creative ideas are not generally simple enough to write on a post-it note. Our idea-generation methods need to be able to cope with complex situations too.

Of course there are ways of doing brainstorming that improve upon the well-known post-it methods. And the conference-call and OneNote situations I’ve described work completely differently. But there’s a connection. Both are about getting the best ideas out of a group of people based on their knowledge, and often generating new knowledge as a result.

What ways have you found for getting the best ideas out of a group and refined into workable ways forward? What have you seen working?


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