Business people often say that they want creative employees.  But, they can’t agree on what that means.  (They can’t agree because what becomes creative is unknown, defined after the fact.)  They don’t know what it is, but they want it.

In the quest for innovation, business leaders resort to all kinds of tomfoolery.  They pull employees out of offices into open space.  They set up work stations.  They pull people out of open space and into offices.  They close down work stations.  They re-arrange the deck chairs.

If there were an effective strategy, it would spread across the business world like wild fire.

Mostly, business leaders try to “empower” their employees by saying “be creative.”  A popular strategy to empower employees to be creative is called “brainstorming.”

“Brainstorming” was developed with the noblest of intentions: we should gather to generate ideas and consider them each equally and fairly, we should not denigrate any idea no matter how silly because every idea contributes to the process.   We should make it rain ideas in our little conference room—small ideas, big ideas, good ideas, bad idea.  Let there be ideas singing in the brain.

Brainstorming offers the potential for diversity of thought—essential to finding an innovative solution.  In theory, participants will build on one another’s ideas.  My idea will spark your refinement or extension of my idea.  Or an entirely different idea.

The more people are free to play with their imaginations, the more ideas there will be to draw from.  Generating lots of ideas can create multiple solutions leading to the best solution to solve a problem.

However good it looks on paper, brainstorming doesn’t work well.  Maybe we should have a brainstorming session on brainstorming.

Brainstorming falls short for a few reasons:

  1. Every group has a political dynamic. The loudest often dominate and can lead the group in a specific direction, shutting down alternatives.
  2. Early ideas crystallize and become the standard for assessing subsequent ideas.
  3. Most of us avoid conflict. We prefer a group consensus to emerge—often following the most dominant in the group.  Consensus is good for group harmony, but it doesn’t establish the best solutions.
  4. Good ideas take time. The 45-60 minute sessions do not allow the time necessary to solve difficult problems.
  5. Studies have shown that individuals thinking alone come up with better solutions than a group hammering out ideas. When we are alone, we focus exclusively on our own thinking, while in a group we are diverted by parsing the group dynamics—the pecking order—and hearing, responding and comparing other people’s ideas.  Our attention is diluted by shifting tasks from our own thoughts to the group’s process.
  6. There is a station clock on the wall of your brainstorming room. No meeting can last forever (even though it feels that way.)  The brainstorming session does eventually end with or without a solution.  And, as the station clock chimes along, the group begins to throw out “Hail Mary’s,” the desperate, risky passes thrown in the closing seconds of a football game.

Do not rely solely on brainstorming in your organization.  But, instead, adopt a balanced strategy.  Individuals should be encouraged to generate ideas, to follow their own ideation process, their own style of thinking.  And, they should be allowed time alone to think.

Brainstorming sessions should not be a free-for-all.  A moderator should move the conversation forward, avoiding digressions and unduly harsh criticism.  Yes, brainstorming should allow for critiques of potential ideas.  Ideas should not be served up like untouchable petit-fours on a crystal plate.  They should be handled, twisted and manipulated—all of which strengthens an idea or clears it off of the list of possible solutions.

The moderator must keep the group away from ad hominem criticism.  People should be commended for generating ideas.

But, it’s only human to offer suggestions or to see a problem with a new idea.  Criticism of the idea does not need to crush the creative soul of an individual.  The moderator must guide discussion to maintain individual motivation.

Hearing criticism of your idea is difficult, even painful.  However, I learned as a playwright to recognize criticism as engagement with your play, your ideas.  To try to make a play or an idea better is a compliment.  Your idea has inspired your “critic” to devote time, energy and thought to your idea.

Collaboration must allow for individuals to think independently and for their voices to be heard and respected.  However, replacing criticism with blanket acceptance of all ideas is a waste of time.  The world is full of bad ideas that should be dispensed with posthaste.  Ideas that don’t help should be swept off the table during group meetings.  Effective collaboration requires honest, but respectful evaluation.

Therefore, one should combine strategies for generating ideas: encourage and allow individuals to use their own ideation process and then provide forums for the open exchange of ideas.

H-IQ provides a forum for each individual to generate, incubate and develop her ideas.  It is self-dialogue that accommodates different thinking styles.  And, it provides valuable practice in generating ideas.

Business leaders need to find a balance between individual, private thinking time and honest discussion of ideas.

Forget about moving chairs and desks around.  People remain human—imaginative and observant—no matter where the chairs are.