Are we brainwashed about brainstorming?

We all cringe a bit when we are invited to a brainstorming meeting. While we thrive on the creativity, we also question the productivity and the cost of the meeting. I know one executive who clicks on an app to tally the cost of the salaries at the table. In essence, she is asking the question we all ask ourselves: are the meetings worth the investment?

Brainstorming is a term that was coined in the 1950’s to describe people coming together in a room to generate ideas. Brainstorming sessions fall under the category of “generative conversations.” And, while sometimes uplifting and exhilarating. they are not without their challenges. Extroverts tend to dominate introverts, and ideas generated by all participants can be slowed or even eliminated.  These meetings can be time wasters when not run well.

Dr. Tony McCaffrey, researcher of innovation tools at Innovation Acceleration, offers an alternative called brainswarming. In this practice, a goal is written at the top of a large piece of paper or chalkboard. Resources that are available for solving the goal are written at the bottom . The group works silently, coming up with their ideas of how to reach the goal. They will either consider how the goals can grow downward by creating subgoals that use resources. Or they will use their resources to create subgoals, that extend upward to reach the goal. Both are valid ways of accomplishing the goal.

This model allows for both top-down thinking – when a person looks at the big picture, focusing on end results – and the bottom-up thinker – looking at a problem from the ground up. For example, wineries constantly strive to sell more wine. A top-down thinker will consider the goal of selling more wine, and create subgoals such as increasing the average sale per guest, and attracting more guests to the winery. A bottom-up processor, on the other hand, will consider the resources- the bar, the displays, the wine –  and consider how they can utilize them to increase average sales and draw in more guests.

If efficiency is the goal of the meeting, brainswarming is the way to go. According to McCaffrey,  brainswarming produces up 115 ideas in 15 minutes, while brainstorming produces 100 ideas per hour.  By switching from talking, to writing on a graph, group work improves with brainswarming, and all ways of thinking are acknowledged.

Whether brainstorming or brainswarming, there are several factors that should be present:

  • Invite the right people. They should be a resource for information, and invested in the goal.
  • Request pre-work. This gives everyone time to process at their own pace and arrive prepared for the discussion.
  • Clearly state the goal
  • Keep the conversation moving forward and on track
  • Welcome all views and ideas as valid.

It is imperative that companies create cultures that are gratifying to their employees. Empowerment through involvement in generating ideas can be an effective way to create a rewarding environment. But, the generating ideas doesn’t have to involve time wasting meetings. Revisiting the structure of brainstorming sessions can ensure the company benefits in creative output and efficiency.

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