Pursue What Matters
Episode 75: Brainstorming-Should You Be Doing It?
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Brainstorming, should you even be doing it? Well join me because I am going to walk you through whether brainstorming is a brilliant idea, or a horrible idea.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:12
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the pursue what matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Well, today, we’re going to talk all about brainstorming: the good, the bad, and the ugly. So the jury’s kind of been out on brainstorming. Some teams love it, some teams hate it. The research has been pretty mixed. And I don’t know, where do you land on brainstorming? I’ve had times where I’ve really enjoyed brainstorming and other times where I’ve heard that we’re going to be doing brainstorming, and I’m like, Oh, my gosh, like, Where’s the nearest hole I can crawl into because, oh, like, I don’t like it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:19
So let’s figure out whether brainstorming is something you should be doing with your teams. So every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you strengthen your confidence to lead. And I try to do that in one of three primary areas. So helping you lead with clarity, lead with curiosity, or lead with community. And so today with the podcast, I really want to help you strengthen your confidence to lead with community because of course, brainstorming is something we typically do at work with our teams.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:59
And so I want you to have confidence that you know, right, if you’re going to brainstorm, first of all, you know how to do it. Well, you know how to do it effectively. And right, that there’s actually some research behind that. Or maybe you don’t do it at all, because there’s no good research to support that. Here’s the thing, there’s a lot of things that we do at work every single day, that has zero research support, but we do it because we’ve always done it, or we do it because it feels good, or it’s fun. And you know, that actually undermines our confidence to lead. And so, you know, my goal every week is to help you pursue what matters to help you do what works. And so with the podcast today, we really want you to strengthen your confidence in building and leading a community. And so we are going to talk all about brainstorming, the good, the bad, the ugly, and really take a look at whether it’s worth your time and energy.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:10
So first of all, what is brainstorming? Right? I mean, it is, in a nutshell, the process for generating creative ideas and solutions, you know, hopefully their creative ideas and solutions through intensive and free wheeling group discussion. And so every participant is encouraged to think aloud and suggest as many ideas as possible. And a lot of times with brainstorming sessions. The idea is, the more outlandish, the more bizarre, the better. And oftentimes with brainstorming sessions, you know, analysis, discussion, or criticism of the ideas is allowed only when the brainstorming session is over, and the evaluation session begins. So, you know, there are some, you know, obviously, there are different approaches to brainstorming, but it’s really this idea of like, let’s just get ideas out there. Let’s get the creative juices flowing. And so brainstorming was first developed by Alex Osborn in the 1940s. And he was an advertising executive who sought to transform how companies cultivated new ideas, right? Like he wanted to get those creative juices flowing. And so you know, brainstorming was technically brainstormed by someone nearly a century ago. So he is known as the father of brainstorming, and he was super passionate about helping companies cultivate new ideas, and he established fourrules of brainstorming and these really have kind of, you know, they have been rules of brainstorming, but you You know, we’ll take a look at whether they are really supported by research in a minute.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:05
But these rules include first, generate as many ideas as possible. And that’s really the hallmark of brainstorming, just get as many ideas down as possible. You don’t want to shut down idea generation to defer judgment on all ideas. All ideas are good ideas, which you know, is not true. But that’s kind of the idea with brainstorming, three, generate wild ideas. So right, even bizarre ideas are welcome. And then four, build upon each other’s ideas. So this is where we kind of think about the group brainstorming as building upon one another’s ideas. So those are the four Osborn rules of brainstorming. And like I said, those rules were developed many, many years ago, and they really have been around for a long time and have been utilized for a long time. But the real question is, does it work, you know, is brainstorming even effective. So let’s take a look at the identified benefits of brainstorming. And this is, you know, from the research and of course, I will link to some articles. In the popular press that documents some of the research that documents, some of the effectiveness studies around brainstorming.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:37
So identified benefits that it can help teams solve problems. So that sounds nice. It can help teams envision marketing campaigns. And of course, we know that Osborne was a marketing executive. So that’s cool. And it can help teams collaborate across divisions and specialties. And you know, that can be very, very beneficial, especially with large organizations where there needs to be cross collaboration, you know, you want to avoid siloed organizations. And so that’s definitely a great benefit. And brainstorming can also harness collective power, the collective power of your team. So that’s awesome, right? So when you are in a group brainstorm, maybe the collective IQ goes up, that’s one of the arguments as one of the identified benefits that has been found. And it can also bring in diverse views, and unique backgrounds. Now, this is particular particularly true when you have and you know, different divisions and different specialties, because you know, you’re you’re going to get a unique perspective. And that, you know, so you’re going to have a unique perspective, that’s going to take a look at that problem. And that’s going to be pretty valuable, potentially, when you’re looking at a specific issue. And then the last identified benefit is that brainstorming can help you develop new approaches. And so there certainly are several identified benefits of brainstorming. And so brainstorming can absolutely be effective.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:27
However, brainstorming also has some liabilities. So the way that I like to think about this is, you know, we want to kind of think in terms of where and when brainstorming goes wrong. So where does brainstorming go wrong? And so one thing that happens is the underlying assumptions around brainstorming can sometimes be wrong. And that is this, it is actually pretty darn inefficient. So one of the beliefs about brainstorming is that it’s more efficient, it’s more efficient to get into a group into a room with a group of people to come up with an idea. And that’s actually not true. It’s actually really inefficient to brainstorm in a group and groups group brainstorming is, is less productive than individual brainstorming. And so the assumption is that group brainstorming is much more productive than individual brainstorming, but that is not true. And there are also contradictions between research and practice. So you know, if everyone did brainstorming, according to the research, and how research documents that brainstorming is effective,I think we’d be okay.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:53
But practically speaking, hardly anyone does brainstorming the way it has been. To be effective. So this is one of the reasons, you know, hopefully this podcast can be helpful for you. Because if you, if you do brainstorming, and in the ways that it has shown to be effective, then it can be a really useful tool. But if you don’t, then it might actually, you know, you actually might be undermining yourself, it might be it might be really, really ineffective. And obviously, we don’t want that happening to you. And with brainstorming, one of the other ways it goes wrong is that there is a productivity deficit.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:37
So when we do group brainstorming, we tend to get fewer ideas, and fewer novel ideas. So fewer creative ideas, which totally you don’t want happening. And the big one, this is I think this is a really big one. And brainstorming may actually kill creativity. Which practice I mean, it’s comical to me, but it’s kind of heartbreaking as well. So some of the things that contribute to killing creativity with brainstorming is a tendency towards social comparison. So you might monitor the efforts of others, and the productivity of others in the room, this can lead to social loafing. And it can also lead to social matching. People can hide out during brainstorm sessions, anyone that’s been in a brainstorm session knows that there tends to be greater conformity, and greater downward performance matching during group brainstorm sessions. So people are more hesitant to share their novel ideas, because they don’t want to be shamed. So I’ve recently done a podcast episode on psychological safety. And if there’s not a lot of psychological safety, people are not going to share their bizarre or their outlandish, or their most creative ideas, because they’re going to be afraid, that being mocked or judged or shamed. And so there’s a tendency towards greater conformity or downward performance matching, there’s that fear of evaluation, which can lead to apprehension about sharing ideas. There’s filtering of ideas, and just generally lower productivity. And also group brainstorming, favors extroverts, and potentially excludes introverts. And so obviously, we don’t want that happening. That’s I mean, that can potentially exclude a big proportion of your team members. And so you know, we don’t want that happening.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:50
So now let’s take a look at how we can help you make brainstorming effective because there definitely are ways and to make brainstorming effective, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. brainstorming isn’t all or nothing. So let’s focus on brainstorming effectively. Because here’s the thing, there definitely are some trade offs. And so I want to talk about this in three ways. So there are three key solutions. So the first one is start with Why? Which is purpose. The second solution is address How, and this is process. And the third solution is What and this is what to do. And this is the plan. So those are the three steps that we are going to focus on so.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:46
So back to solution one and start with why, which is your purpose. So what is your purpose? For the brainstorm? Why are you considering brainstorming? How can it be helpful? And what is the question you are trying to answer? And you really need to ask if brainstorming is the best way to get the answers you are trying to find. So you know one of the first questions to ask is about the nature of the questions you’re trying to answer. So, for instance, do you need a lot of ideas? So are you going for breadth? So you need a whole bunch of ideas? means you’re going for breath? Or do you need to dive deep around one core theme? If so, right you’re going for depth. And so if you are going for breadth, so lots of ideas, you should do an individual brainstorm, not a group brainstorm. So when you’re going for breadth and you should do an individual brainstorm because it is more productive. You’ll get more ideas, you’ll get more variety of ideas, you’ll get more unique ideas. These are questions that require variety, novelty and even absurd ideas where creativity is most essential. And the goal is to develop many ideas. And if you’re in a group, people are going to filter themselves, group brainstorms are less productive. And so if you need a lot of ideas, you should keep it to an individual brainstorm. So you have your team, you have your team with the same assignment, but you have them do that brainstorm individually.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:37
Okay, but if the question is a dive, etc, a deep dive around one core theme, so you’re going for depth, then that is a time to do a group brainstorm. So with a group brainstorm, there is a productivity deficit, meaning you’re going to have fewer ideas, you’re going to have less variety of ideas, you’re going to have less unique ideas. But right, that’s less important. When you’re going for depth. You don’t need a bunch of ideas. So the depth questions and the group brainstorm, the group brainstorms are really good for complex questions that require a depth of understanding and exploration. So this is where it would be so great, to get several experts in the room to dive deep around one really complex question. That’s when a group brainstorm would be most effective. Because you don’t need a ton of ideas. But you need, you need several different perspectives around the complex question. And so hopefully, you can see how your question and your purpose for the brainstorm really, really matters and guides the type of brainstorm you are going to do.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:17
So the thing to keep in mind with brainstorming is that the real genius of brainstorming is interaction. That’s what you get from group brainstorming. So what can you get from group brainstorming that you cannot achieve alone? when it’s used correctly, I just want to add that caveat. So what you get from group brainstorming that you cannot achieve alone is the iterative effect, the collaborative effect, the synergistic effect. So someone taking one idea, and another person in the room building on that idea, adding to that idea, saying, oh, let’s just let’s tweak that a little bit. And so you can see how that interaction really lends itself to complex questions. Right? Where it’s, you know, having a lot of ideas is not really very helpful. But the depth of understanding and making something better, making something better, is really, the genius of group brainstorming. So that’s really important to pay attention to the genius of group brainstorming is in the interaction.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:43
Okay, and now we want to move to solution two or step two, which is to address how, and this is the process. So the process of brainstorming really matters. I want to be perfectly clear about this. brainstorming should not be a free for all, so if you are the one conducting the brainstorming session, and I would just say you know, maybe you maybe you bring someone in from the outside to conduct this. So you know, as a as a leadership coach and the certified dare to lead facilitator and a psychologist, you know, I could be someone that you would invite in to facilitate a brainstorm session. And depending on your brainstorm session, it might be a really great thing because, you know, sometimes if you are a member of the team, and you’re also trying to facilitatethe brainstorm session, that can just get a little bit tricky.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:48
But, you know, that’s just something to pay attention to, depending on how big the question is, you know, if it’s a small question, obviously, you know, that can be done in house. But sometimes with big brainstorm sessions, it’s, it’s well worth your time and your money and your energy to bring in a facilitator to facilitate your brainstorm sessions. So, but with this solution Two, How really matters and so Process, so if you are conducting it or whoever is conducting the brainstorm session, you want to provide structure and flexibility, both are really important. It’s not a free for all. But there needs to be enough structure and enough flexibility to allow the process to unfold. You want to balance both evaluation and creative tasks. So both are really important. So we don’t want to shut down creativity and collaboration. But we we basically, and kind of move in a step by step process a stepwise process, actually, between creative tasks, and evaluative tasks. Because if we only do creative tasks, we get to the end of the day, or the end of the brainstorm sessions, and we just have lousy ideas. And so we’ve got to, we’ve got to establish the norm of evaluation, and critiquing as we go, because the quality of the ideas will be much higher. And so it we’ve got to balance evaluation, and creative tasks as we go.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:40
The other part of that process is we need to outline roles and responsibilities. And that’s why I say, you know, if you’re the leader, and you’re also facilitating the brainstorm session, that can get kind of tricky. And so it’s really important to outline roles and responsibilities. So okay, Are you a member of this brainstorm session? Are you the boss here? What, like, what’s your role? And so having that established and clear can be really helpful. And because you know, when you have a leader, that those power differentials, those power dynamics don’t go anywhere, during a brainstorm session. And so, you know, even if the boss is in the room, and her ideas are lousy, sometimes those, those ideas go to the top of the list when they should not go to the top of the list, just because of that power dynamic. And so we want to be really careful about that we have to pay attention to those power dynamics. And we’ve got to make those roles and those responsibilities explicit. Because otherwise, the quality of the work, the quality of the ideas, and the effectiveness of the brainstorm session suffers. So we want to be really explicit and clear about that. And then the last point here is that we want to both collaborate and critique. So we want to work together, we want to really engage in collaborative activities. And we want to get really comfortable with also critiquing the ideas. So we’re not going to be, you know, personally attacking or anything like that. But you got to get really comfortable with critiquing ideas. No idea is safe, they shouldn’t be. And so kind of like that evaluative and creative component. And both collaboration and critique are essential components of effective brainstorm sessions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:49
Okay, and finally, let’s move on to solution three or step three. And that is what to do. And you have got to have a plan. So the whole point of brainstorming is to let creativity shine, right? I mean, you want to support the creative process in order to generate good results. And so with a brainstorming plan, you know, there are three components to this. So you’ve got the pre brainstorm, the brainstorming session, and then the post brainstorm component of that plan. So in the pre brainstorm component, you need to determine if brainstorming is appropriate. You identify the problem or the question, you identify goals and you communicate the plan. So that’s what you’re really looking at those purpose questions you determine, like, who should be in the room? You know, what are the roles and responsibilities? And so it’s a lot of that prep work before you even go into the session to even determine if it’s appropriate to be doing a group of brainstorm session. And so it’s all that prep work.
Dr. Melissa Smith 25:04
And then the second component is the actual brainstorm session. How long is it going to be? Is it going to be a morning? Is it going to be a day? Is it going to be a week? Is it going to be off site? Is it going to be on site, there are so many decisions that are made during the pre brainstorm. And that, you know, obviously will play out during the brainstorm session. But of course, and, you know, you need to maintain structure, you’ve got to enforce the rules, right? Like the structure that you have, have, like, it’s got to be enforced, and you got to address concerns. And so this is where, you know, really having an outside facilitator coming in to do that can be so incredibly helpful. Because the facilitator can write like, that’s what they do. That’s, that’s where they shine. So you’ve got to enforce rules and address concerns. And you’ve got to ask questions that drive collaboration, insight, and perspective. And that’s so critically important, the questions you ask, make all the difference. And again, this is where having a facilitator come in, makes all the difference, all the difference in the world. And then you’ve got to track, integrate, and focus the information. So when you ask good questions, right, and you, you get the feedback from the team, you’re tracking it, you’re integrating it, what do you do with it. And so you know, you’ve got to be able to know how to make the most of that information. And that really, really matters. And then, of course, in the post brainstorm session, we’ve got to have actionable follow up, there’s nothing worse than having this amazing brainstorm session where you’re all excited. You’re, you’re so excited about this new idea, this new plan, and then it’s crickets, and you never hear any follow up about it, that crushes a team. And that is corrosive to Team culture. And so you’ve got to have actionable follow up, you’ve got to have a timeline, you’ve got to determine who is responsible. And you’ve got to provide reasonable updates. So that is so critically important. And to many people consider their work is kind of the bulk of their work is done after the brainstorm session, because it’s like, Okay, that was the heavy lifting. And certainly the brainstorm session requires a lot of focused energy, but your work is not done. And of course, you know, really, the work is just getting going, post brainstorm. But, you know, really don’t forget how incredibly important it is to follow up and communicate with the team and close the loop on that actionable follow up.
Dr. Melissa Smith 28:18
And so those are the three components of that brainstorming plan. And so again, with these three steps, these three solutions we start with, Why, start with your purpose. The second step or solution is address How, which is your process, the process really matters. And solution three, What to do. So Why, How and What and what to do is your plan, and you’ve got to have a plan, you want to let creativity shine. But your plan really matters on that. So you know, should you even be brainstorming, right? That’s the question that I opened with. And what I would say is, brainstorming can be incredibly effective, if done, right, if done well, right. And so you need to have a plan and follow the research. There’s really good research to guide you. Don’t do what feels good, don’t do what you’ve always done, but really let the research guide you. And hopefully this podcast episode has been helpful for you to learn some of those basics around what makes for effective brainstorming. But when done effectively and guided by the research, brainstorming can be incredibly an incredibly effective tool for your teams and for your organization. So it’s definitely one of those tools that can be very useful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 29:57
So head on over to my website. To check out the show notes for the resources related to this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash episode dash 75 one more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash episode dash 75 I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care
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