Why most brainstorming doesn’t work

It can seem on the surface that a lot of what I teach is very similar to the hardly innovative technique of brainstorming. That’s because most techniques for idea generation are, let’s face it, trying to do the same thing – generate better ideas. And yes, if you have ever been through a creative thinking session with me you will spend time trying out different techniques to generate ideas – whether that’s narrative analysis, “taking your idea for a walk”, “chimaerapaedia, whatever.

What is different about the way I teach people to think about generating ideas, though, is this. Learning techniques is not the important part. I think a lot of people who are really good at generating ideas get this intuitively. But a lot of the people who come to us for help do not. They want a toolbox, something they can take to meetings, apply to problems and situations, and use to get themselves out of those problems.

Photo by Trang Nguyen on Unsplash

But that’s not how it works. Here’s why.

Techniques are only ever about making better use of the resources you already have. Of course that can improve your performance a great deal. Very few individuals or teams or organizations make the best use of the resources they have. We can make often very large improvements by avoiding basic errors, automating some tasks so people can focus on their skills, supporting team members, creating better work environments, finding ways to unlock and develop people’s talents.

But that will only ever take us so far.

Creativity is about not only making the most of your resources but having better resources.

This applies in 3 areas, and it is these three areas I work on when I work with people on creativity. In many ways, the techniques we use are entirely secondary.

  1. More knowledge

No matter how good your idea generating techniques, you can never generate ideas involving things you don’t know. The more you know about more things, the larger the pool you have to draw on. Better techniques help you make better use of your knowledge, but (assuming one could quantify such things) making 95% efficient use of 500 bits of information is obviously not as good as making 50% efficient use of 10,000 things.

And the more you want to generate innovative ideas to solve difficult problems, the more you need that knowledge to be about a vast variety of things. If you want to expand your knowledge, don’t just specialise. If specialism alone were the answer to a problem, it’s more likely someone would have come up with the answer already. Learn about urban planning, learn about volcanology, learn about Turkish poetry from 1200 years ago, learn about structural engineering.

  1. More usable knowledge

Don’t just learn these things. Learn them in a way that makes them usable. It’s interesting knowing about 19th century carpet-making techniques. But it’s only useful if you are able to apply that knowledge to other areas. A fact is not just an isolated thing, it is a set of potential connections.

One way I approach this with people is to encourage them to break things down into their properties, their associations, their categories. While “how a jacquard loom works” might seem hard to connect, if you think of this as being about “how to communicate instructions” or “automation” or “managing complex tasks” you will automatically be placing it alongside other things with those associations, taking away a large barrier to connecting them.

  1. Fewer assumptions

It doesn’t matter what you know if your view of the world won’t let you use it. We come laden with a lot of assumptions that stop us solving problems. Some arise from a lack of empathy that stop us fully exploring the problem. The issue of plastic in our oceans is one I use all the time. We routinely believe the answer is simple because we fail to see that some disabled people *need* single use plastic. We have a failure of empathy and assume that at base, what people say their need is must be based on their intransigence not ours.

Some arise from fixed beliefs about how things work. These are the disciplinary silos that stop us innovating. If all humans believed jacquard looms (see “carpet-making”, above) are only ever useful for making carpets, we would never have developed the punchcards that powered the first computers. A wide range of knowledge is only useful if we allow ourselves the imaginative freedom to use it and forget the “rules” about what can and can’t be done.

Different Boxes

A real problem, of course, especially when it comes to assumptions, is that most of the time we don’t realise what our assumptions are. We think we’re simply being realistic, or that some things are “just the way things are.”

It is really hard for individuals to overcome this. Which is one reason for working in teams. But it can also be hard for teams to do this, because a lot of our teams are simply collections of people who hold the same assumptions and know the same things. If you manufacture widgets, then most of your team will have lots of knowledge about widget manufacturing. Not really useful if there’s an amazing answer to be found through the knowledge of how rodents’ teeth work. Likewise with assumptions – if your team working on clean oceans contains no one disabled, you are unlikely to understand why disabled people need single use plastics.

As I tell people in our sessions, rather than trying to get people to think outside the box, it is much easier to bring together a really diverse team and have everyone think inside a wide variety of boxes.

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