the best ideas

brainstorm2

The last brainstorming session I led was a complete failure. It was a few years ago, before I’d read all of the articles telling me how useless brainstorming really is. As a writer, I’m a big fan of the ‘free write’, where you pick up a pen and a piece of paper and sit quietly writing whatever comes to mind. This is a great way to clear out the cobwebs and get to a place where your writing starts to come together and head in a cohesive direction. I saw brainstorming as the same concept but used collectively. Not so much. Every idea that anyone threw out was immediately beaten to a bloody pulp before another idea was suggested. All of the beating made many in the group fearful of throwing out any ideas at all. We got nowhere.

brainstorming=the loudest person wins, everyone loses

Now I know….brainstorming doesn’t work. But we creatives still need ideas. And group think by its very nature will generate more ideas, and a wider diversity of ideas, than can any one of us sitting alone. There are a couple of methods that have been developed in the last few years that seem to yield better results.

ask questions

Frame-storming (coined by Tina Seelig at Stanford and used by Matthew May in his book ‘Winning the Brain Game’) turns brainstorming on its head. Rather than generating ideas, a problem is set forth and participants generate questions. Hal Gregersen of MIT calls this question-storming and the Right Question Institute calls it QFT (question formulation technique). This method seems to engage more participants and incur less judgment, thereby allowing more ideas. The QFT method follows five steps.

  1. Design a ‘question-focus’: this is best presented as a statement of the problem being addressed.
  2. Generate questions: in small groups assign one person to write, all others throw out questions for a designated time period. No discussion or debate is allowed.
  3. Improve questions: groups work on questions, refining some and expanding others.
  4. Prioritize questions: each group selects its favorite questions, shares them with the larger group and everyone votes on the best questions, those that provide new avenues into the problem.
  5. Define next steps: create an action plan on whatever question(s) rise to the top.

write

Dr. Tony McCaffrey developed a technique he calls brain-swarming. A problem or goal is written at the top of a white board, available resources are written at the bottom. Individuals use sticky notes to write down ideas for tackling the problem. Discussion and refinement occurs as the board is filled in.

Leigh Thompson and Loran Nordgren, professors at the Kellogg School, have developed a process they call brain-writing (the phrase was originally coined by UT Arlington professor Paul Paulus). With brain-writing, ideation occurs first and individually. Once ideas are written down (or in Nordgren’s case they can be recorded on an app he developed called Candor), they are brought to the group and discussed.

Both methods of write first/talk later have proven to yield more potential solutions from a larger percentage of participants. Everyone has an opportunity to participate equally.

in the context of design

So let’s say you’re in a design charrette, what might these techniques look like? Pretend the goal is to design a SLO food restaurant in New Orleans.

Frame-storm

Questions like ‘what is available locally in NOLA?’, ‘who would buy SLO food….locals or tourists?’, ‘is there a history of SLO food in NOLA?’, ‘what about local traditions?’, etc. might shape the discussion.

Brain-swarm

The top of the white board would say ‘SLO food restaurant in NOLA’, the bottom might list available SLO foods, budget, existing conditions, available fabricators, time constraints, etc.

Brain-write

We all come at design differently, so the brain-write approach would allow each participant to address the problem/goal from their comfort zone. If it were me, I’d begin with the dictionary and move to online research into place. Someone else might begin with images.

Next time I’m called on to lead a brainstorming session, I’ll try one of these methods instead. Sounds like a lot more fun than beating mostly bad ideas to a bloody pulp.

Keep in touch,
Leslie