When brainstorming fails, throw an imaginary cat

By Gabriel Aldaz (Director of Bay Area Office)

This past month, I was asked to speak on the topic of concept generation, also known as ideation, at Professor Larry Leifer’s 3D Printing and Design course – ME137/237 – at Stanford University.

At these talks, I always ask the audience to shout out methods that are useful in generating creative solutions to a problem. “Brainstorming” is invariably heard first, perhaps followed by some of its derivatives, such as bodystorming, assumption storming, and brainwriting. Then the room goes quiet. What happened? Brainstorming seems to enjoy a near monopoly on concept generation methods. One reason for brainstorming’s popularity is that it can be incredibly effective. Put some people in a room, give them a topic, and sit back as the creative energy allows ideas to blossom and grow. Sounds simple, right?

Actually, many brainstorming sessions go terribly wrong every day in companies worldwide. Here are two examples:

  1. A manager at an automobile manufacturer decides to engage in a “brainstorming session” and invites his team to come up with new features for autonomous vehicles. A brave team member suggests a feature, only to be told that it has already been tried and will never work. After a few ideas get shot down as soon as they come up, team members stop volunteering, and the leader expresses disappointment at the team’s lack of creativity.
  2. The boss of an organization participates in the “brainstorming session” and generates numerous ideas. All the subordinates listen, nod in agreement, and offer a few compliments. At the conclusion, the boss marvels at the team’s creative output.

Example 1 is a simple case of not following the rules of brainstorming. Simplexity’s version of these rules are below:

  1. Appoint a moderator to make sure the rules are enforced, as well as keep track of time and record ideas.
  2. Focus on one specific sub-topic.
  3. No criticism or judgment (positive or negative), even if your own ideas (including body language).
  4. ALL ideas are welcome (do not need to be practical, wild ideas encouraged).
  5. Build on one another’s ideas.
  6. One conversation at a time – do not dive into details or side discussions.
  7. Keep it fun, interject humor.
  8. Work through lulls in the ideas, add twists to the topic.
  9. Everyone should have something to write with and write on.
  10. 5 to 10 people from different backgrounds is ideal.

Example 2 exposes a subtler challenge. For a brainstorm to be successful, all participants must get creative. And for creativity to express itself, a sense of trust and camaraderie must exist among the participants. The single biggest blocker of creativity is fear, as in fear of saying something embarrassing, fear of sticking your neck out, fear of the boss.

How can we create the right atmosphere for creativity? Another activity that relies heavily on creativity for success is improvisational theatre. Academy Award-winning actor Alan Arkin’s memoir, An Improvised Life, describes an activity that he uses to kick off his improv workshops. So, getting back to my guest lecture on ideation at a Stanford University, I decided to try Arkin’s method.

As soon as my lecture began, I asked eight students to stand up and form a circle. Nobody volunteered, and I had to threaten to call up everyone who had their computer open. At last, eight bodies came forward reluctantly. I gave them two instructions. First, they were not to do anything interesting or creative. Second, they needed to be fast, not give themselves time to overthink. I began to bounce an imaginary tennis ball and threw it into the circle. The ball got passed around. Without pause, I turned the ball into a feather, then a cat.

The game stayed fast and, as Arkin predicted, the whole group loosened up within minutes. Furthermore, people began to disregard my first rule and started to be naturally creative, acting without self-consciousness despite being observed by the rest of the class. One student dribbled the imaginary ball between his legs, like a basketball player. Another threw the feather way up in the air and everyone waited patiently for it to come down. A third person gave the cat a tight hug. Why did the Stanford students get creative when I specifically told them not to? As Arkin puts it, “It is in our nature to be creative. Not being creative is an aberration.”

Now let’s say that the brainstorming was a success. People came together, everyone contributed, and dozens of novel ideas were generated. Job done? Not quite. There is still the risk that the tall stack of promising Post-it notes will be placed in a drawer and never seen again. Or the risk that the person in charge will evaluate the ideas based on feasibility criteria, yielding familiar and incremental results.

Instead, one useful technique is to map ideas on a risk/reward space. Those that score high on both risk and reward are considered moonshots, the high potential ideas. Ideas low on both risk and reward are safe bets. Moving along ideas in the different quadrants of the risk/reward space (with the possible of exception of high risk/low reward) preserves innovation potential. A second method involves rating each idea according to certain metrics. Defining metrics to evaluate ideas is challenging, and varies from project to project. The metrics should be aligned with the overall project goals, or the specific brainstorm goal. Sample metrics include constraints such as cost, weight, and ease of use. Metrics could also be user-centered (design for a persona) or practical (feasibility to prototype).

While following some or all of the steps will not guarantee success, it should help designers avoid pitfalls during concept generation and selection. A final thought: during the product development journey, don’t forget to look around at every step. People regularly think they have come up with a brilliant new idea, only to find out – sometimes many man-hours and millions of dollars later – that it has already been done. Instead, familiarize yourself with the state-of-the-art and build on it. A creative solution is non-obvious, hopefully simple, and often leveraged from other technology.

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