Brainstorming—Not for Everyone

Many of us have participated in a brainstorming exercise at some point in our business careers. In fact, brainstorming seems to be the preferred technique by which organizations generate creative ideas and solutions for problems. However, it may surprise you to learn that brainstorming is no more effective for developing creative ideas than having individuals work on their own.

Alex Osborn, author of the 1948 book, “Your Creative Power,” popularized brainstorming. But a study in 1958 at Yale University refuted Osborn’s claim the many of us work more creatively when we are teamed up. The study found that those who worked on their own came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups and their solutions were more “effective.”

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis states that “decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In other words, brainstorming does not unleash the potential of the group, but, rather, makes each individual less creative.

While rules are important when working with groups, perhaps the most inhibiting rule to creativity is to not criticize other’s ideas. The rules for brainstorming (as originated by Osborn) are:

  1. Come up with as many ideas as you can.
  2. Do not criticize one another’s ideas.
  3. Free-wheel and share wild ideas.
  4. Expand and elaborate on existing ideas.

If group members are not allowed to provide criticism to ideas, how is creativity expected to flourish? Certainly reviewing ideas later is an option (and this is what typically happens after a brainstorming session), but it is far more creative to dispel bad ideas from the onset.

Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley has repeatedly shown that groups engaging in “debate and dissent” come up with approximately 25 percent more ideas than those engaging in brainstorming. In addition, these ideas are typically rated as more original and useful.

However, using criticism depends on the make-up of the brainstorming group. Members that are comfortable and well-known to each other may benefit from a bout of criticism to ideas, while engaging in lively idea generation. But allowing criticism when there are new members or where members are highly introverted may do more harm than good.

From my perspective, there are only two ways in which brainstorming can be effective:

  1. Creative brainstorming can only occur with members that are comfortable with accepting and giving criticism.
  2. An effective facilitator must guide the group to allow an invigorating debate of ideas and allow participants to be honest about what ideas are good and what ideas do not merit further consideration.

There is no need to suffer through rubbish ideas during brainstorming. And if you happen to be on the receiving end of the “thumbs down” for your idea, do not become offended. Remember that the “thumbs down” is not for you, but for your idea. And we all occasionally have both good and bad ideas.

Accelerating Project Success

Ahh…the project. Who among us has never had to do one? No matter what line of work we’re in, we all have at one time and/or another engaged in projects. Anything from planning an event such as a small dinner gathering to building infrastructure like bridges and highways comes under the purview of a project. But did you know that the success of projects is determined in large part by the amount and quality of project planning?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge defines a project plan as “a formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” However, there are many occasions when a “formal, approved document” may seem over-the-top (e.g., dinner party planning). But no matter the size of the project, having some type of documentation to guide you through execution is recommended.

Consider this. Successful projects can typically be traced back to planning work that can take up to 80% of the project manager’s (and others’) time. What, you ask? When do they have time to actually execute the plan? You may be surprised to learn that the process of planning projects touches all nine areas of project knowledge control areas, whereas the execution process covers only five areas. In fact, of the five project processes (initiation, planning, execution, control, and closing), only initiation and closing have less steps than execution.

How do you make sure you have a fool-proof project plan? Here are five considerations:

  1. Define the purpose. Why are you doing the project in the first place? If you don’t know why, then you won’t know how to plan for the project, either. Knowing the purpose will help you define what success looks and feels like for the project.
  2. Allow freedom to happen, but don’t lose control. Identify what needs to be in place (e.g., policies, procedures, standards) to ensure project success. Then put this in place and trust your project team to move the project forward.
  3. Engage your team. Use brainstorming to fill in the gaps in your plan. Mind mapping used during brainstorming allows everyone to “see” the gaps and makes them easier to fill. A picture is worth more than a thousand words.
  4. Write the plan. Organize your plan in a logical sequence so that both left-brain and right-brain people will be able to glean understanding. Use a simple “at a glance” template and add detail in an appendix. Below is a template that I really like. It captures the “define-measure-analyze-improve-control” principles from Lean.
  5. Make decisions. As you implement your project plan, regularly keep checking the plan. Modify the plan during implementation, as necessary. Remember, plans are just that – plans. They serve as a guide in the process. Adjustments can and should be made to fit the reality of implementation.

Your complete project plan will include assumptions and decisions about the project as well as the project’s estimated (and approved) scope, cost, and schedule. Another advantage to having a project plan is that it helps to facilitate communication among stakeholders – they don’t need to guess about the project, since all the details are written in the plan. And that in itself can be counted as a successful outcome of your project!