I recently conducted a brainstorming session at work. Properly used, this is a powerful technique for unleashing team or individual creativity. Unfortunately, the term has come to apply to almost any informal process for generating new ideas. My experience drove home why brainstorming consists of two distinct stages, each with its own set of rules.

The idea generation stage is supposed to focus on quantity, not quality, and there is to be no criticism of ideas generated. When facilitating brainstorming sessions, I typically allow clarifying questions and comments, though usually this just means more ideas, or more succinct summaries of ideas. It is frequently difficult to stop people from criticizing ideas. I recall once getting into an argument with some one over whether his editorial comments constituted criticism or not. In the end, he petulantly announced he would no longer say anything, and thereby succeeded in degrading (if not sabotaging) the free flow of ideas. The problems with criticism at this stage are:

  • It inhibits people from expressing ideas that are outside the mainstream but ultimately highly effective.
  • It inhibits people from expressing ideas that are ineffective alone but made effective in combination with other ideas.
  • When criticism comes from those with an advantage (title, seniority, specialization, or credentials) it reinforces the fallacy that the advantage is a prerequisite for good ideas.
  • When criticism is extreme, people may withhold good ideas out of resentment or a desire for retribution.

In the selection stage, the proliferation of ideas is consolidated down to a much smaller number which the group agrees on. The proliferation-consolidation cycle can be observed in many adaptive economic and biological systems.

The beauty of the separation of the stages is that the connection between an individual and his idea is broken. Hence, if the idea is shot down quickly in the selection stage, it is not a personal attack–people may not even remember who originally came up with the idea. Furthermore, that person can show support for another idea without feeling he has abandoned something sacred he is personally invested in. The result is team consensus on a small number of ideas. The team can use its full complement of skills and strengths and shore up each other’s weaknesses to pursue these.

Tags: Business

Updated at: 19 August 2006 12:08 AM