If you’re in the market for some bad ideas, you could do a lot worse than get your colleagues together and announce a brainstorm. The very mention of the word seems to elicit one of two distinct responses: dread from those who have work they want to be doing and secret delight from those who are desperate for any reason to avoid doing whatever it is they were actually supposed to be doing.
Oh, there is a third reaction: mock outrage that someone would use the word ‘brainstorm’, as it is so obviously a term that offends people with epilepsy. These people then offer up a few alternative terms (Thought shower. Ideation. Ideating), all of which make me want to go and do a bit of vomitating. Not just because these are ridiculous, made-up words, but also because it is unnecessary. There’s actually nothing wrong with the word ‘brainstorm’ – and this is coming from epileptic sufferers themselves.
Brainstorming may not be a bad word to say, but it is generally a bad thing to do. Plenty of research has debunked its effectiveness, so why is it looked upon so favourably by those in business? And looked on so suspiciously by those (myself included) who are actually in the professional ‘coming up with ideas’ business?
I’m not morally opposed to collaborative thinking, it’s just that traditional brainstorms tend to cling to one of the the biggest fallacies ever perpetuated in the creativity game:
“there’s no such thing as a bad idea.”
I’m here to call bullshit on that one. There are actually plenty of things that are a bad idea: Zumba. Underwater weddings. Electing this guy. Just for starters. Speaking of politics (they don’t call me ‘Tenuous Link man’ for nothing), the main reasons bad ideas proliferate in brainstorm are politics & politeness. There’s no reliable mechanism for separating the ideas from the personalities and so you end up protecting the ideas that are associated with the most politically powerful people in the room (your boss, the client, the expensive consultant), or you spend all your time equally protecting all the equal ideas from all the equal people.
There are no judgements here.
And that’s the goddamn problem. Brainstorms place too much emphasis on generating ideas (and they are not even very good at that) and not enough on interrogating them, sorting the wheat from the chaff. There’s a reason it’s hard to get into advertising – you kind of have to know a little bit about what you are doing, you have to have a clue. And so it should be hard to get into a brainstorm (if you are still going to have one). It should be populated by people who have smarts and skills and experience and a point of view. Most importantly, they should not be hesitant to express that point of view. Which is why the genuinely brilliant people I’ve worked with generally ‘choke’ in these artificial environments of ‘enforced idea equality’: asking them not to interpret and pass judgement on ideas is like asking them not to breathe.
There’s also no discipline here.
If you are still going ahead with this darned fool idea, then at least do your homework and then get everyone to do theirs. Assemble a team of thinkers and doers, with distinct specialities, plus a few generalists. Ensure the core team are familiar with each other and add in a few fresh faces, preferably with no stake in the outcome. Give them enough notice and brief them properly. Parcel out the research tasks (competitive landscape, audience insights, social listening report) and ask for succinct, 10 minute summaries to get everyone up to speed. Give people some time to think, and work, alone, then come back as a group to discuss and discard. Remember the aim is not to generate many so-so ideas, but to rally around a few great ones.
Call in the Bomb Squad.
I’ve spent too many hours in too many bad brainstorms to want to keep doing this. I also believe, however, that once you cease to put in the effort to find a better alternative, you forfeit your right to complain. And I love complaining. So we’ve developed a template for tackling problems as a group and quickly arriving at new thinking that has been critically reviewed and supported.
We call it the Bomb Squad, because it puts the problem or opportunity in the middle of the room and surrounds it with smart people who work quickly to blow it up into a big idea. We also call it that, because it sounds like it will be politically incorrect, to someone, somewhere.
Sound a bit like regular brainstorming? Yes – if regular brainstorming involved preparation, structure and discipline. The preparation is in the pre‐work, ensuring that the room takes no longer than 30 minutes to get up to speed, and no one can derail the process with those tragic words: “we’ll have to go and find that out”. The structure is in the way the team is assembled: a carefully‐calibrated mix of youthful enthusiasm and learned wisdom, of technical insight and wide‐eyed wonder, of careful reconnaissance and daring risk taking. And the discipline comes from the squad leaders, who are charged with keeping to the schedule and building the follow‐through plan (another big failing of traditional ‘brainstorms’).
If you’d like to know more about how The Bomb Squad works (yes, we even have an instruction manual), get in touch and we’ll talk.
About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+
About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.