How often do you practice your brainstorming skills?

I used to sign up for a lot of webinars but, over time, I found that I was not deriving enough benefit from most of them to make it worth my while.  Today, I listened in on one that turned out to be a gem.  The topic was “Design Thinking:  Transforming Teams” presented by Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford University.

He referenced an recent article in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer called Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth  The article argued that individual ideation produces more creative ideas than brainstorming.  What that author missed was that for brainstorming to be effective, people need to be skilled in the process.

The concept of needing 10,000 hours to become skilled at something is something we associate with playing an instrument or being a great athlete or speaker or whatever.  Burnett said creative thinking in general and brainstorming in particular are skills that need to be practiced in order to become effective.  He talked about using games and improv activities to help warm up a group and then going through the process so that team members got used to listening to wild ideas without making editorial comments (like “that won’t work”).  In some ways, that seems obvious but, in reality, brainstorming is usually used as an occasional- let’s brainstorm with whatever group is there.  How often have you heard of people practicing to get better at it?

The other point he mentioned was selection criteria for ideas.  This is something where many groups fall short.  Once they get a pool of ideas, they don’t know how to proceed.  I generally ask the group to have a set of criteria in place before they start the process, prioritizing cost, time, impact or whatever factors they choose.  Burnett suggested a different approach.

He uses dot voting (which is not unusual) but gives each person 3 sets of two dots.  The first is to vote on most likely to succeed.   The second 2 dots are for most likely to delight.  The third pair are for which would create the greatest breakthrough.  With that as a starting point, the group discusses which ideas to pursue.  I found that approach intriguing.

Bottom line- it was time well spent.  Thanks to Stanford Center for  Professional Development for sponsoring the session.