Generating Ideas from ‘Crowds’? Really?

Ever been in one of those brainstorming workshops with lunch provided, staring at a blank whiteboard with a ‘facilitator’ exhorting everyone not to be bashful and to think outside the box.

Thinking ‘outside the box’ is the romantic ideal of creativity, but the brutal truth is that there ALWAYS is a ‘box’ that defines at the very least the goal of creative thought – and in most cases – a variety of constraints that need to be respected on the way to creative nirvana. Asking people to think and to begin with a blank sheet of paper will cause a ‘thinker’s block’ in most cases while the ‘thinker’ works through the goals, constraints and assumptions in his mind. Mark McGuinness has a very interesting experiment on thinking ‘inside the box’. He concludes that

‘Creative freedom’ is usually spoken of as a positive thing – but in this case, having total freedom to write any kind of story they like tends to paralyse people.

So, a successful brainstorming begins with something already on the board. There HAS to be a workshop owner (not just a ‘facilitator’) who brings the framework to the table and has a vested interest in the end-product. All participants should be there for their skills, experience or a ‘stakeholder-pass’ – not just to have more ‘heads’ to get to bear on the problem.

The workshop ‘owner’ taps into the entire group – gets them to add more flesh to the framework, validate or repudiate assumptions, extend the concept into the practical execution challenges, push and poke at imagined or defined boundaries and iterate through various cycles of conception to execution to fine tune the solution.

On tools, I prefer mindmaps and structured (lateral) thinking as the two most valuable accelerators for brainstorming.

At the individual level, laying out your ideas on a mindmap is a powerful idea management technique that I can personally attest to as my implementations evolve. It can be scaled up to manage group brainstorming sessions as well  – with similar powerful outputs as Michael Deutch insists.

From a structured thinking perspective, we need to make sure that the discussion has adequate representation of the six color ‘thinking hats’ from Edward de Bono – (Facts, Emotions, Critical-Judgment, Positive-Judgment, Creativity and Big-Picture). I am still trying to digest Jeffrey Phillip’s refreshing new term ‘Elastic Thinking’. More on that later.

Group Brainstorming in itself does not ‘generate ideas’. It helps amplify and sharpen individual thoughts – that need a vehicle for validation and improvement – and an organization framework for implementation.