How to stop jacking around re: brainstorming

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It is important to talk about brainstorming tools, but here’s the basic deal with brainstorming: it’s a fairly fraught concept. The way most companies/organizations work, the idea of ‘brainstorming’ means you take a bunch of people, harried and hassled from other meetings and conference calls, and you shove them into a room together. Some target-whiffing ‘meeting owner’ gets up there and says ‘Let’s brainstorm this new thing! Let’s innovate!’ And then, despite the fact you just came out of a 60-minute meeting that no one was even remotely prepared for, you’re now supposed to brainstorm and innovate your way to 100x growth.

Brainstorming is fraught, and effective brainstorming probably will not make you a unicorn despite what conventional logic about ‘the amazing nature of collaboration’ might tell us. In reality, effective brainstorming might advance a project two or three steps further than it would normally go — and hey, in many ways, that’s a complete win for the individuals involved, the team, and the company.

So how does effective brainstorming work? What are the brainstorming tools you need?

Brainstorming Tools: Know The User

It’s also pretty fraught to automatically assume Google knows more about work than any other place on the planet, but hey, it might be true. I’m guilty of falling into the ‘deification of Google in the organizational development context’ trap as well; see this post for an example. Well, there’s another Fast Company article about ‘How To Brainstorm Like A Googler.’ I thought it might make a few interesting points. In Google’s eyes, there are three steps. The first step is Know The User. Makes sense, because that’s how you drive value in pretty much any business context — notably digital marketing.

It’s absolutely stunning how many organizations have no idea who their user really is. I think part of the problem is that many companies rely on surveys, which are a totally-biased, generally-outdated method of getting to the heart of an issue. If we’re really living in the age of ‘Big Data,’ well, why the hell are you 1–5 surveying random customers? It doesn’t really make a ton of sense.

In this stage of brainstorming tools, you’re trying to understand a user’s ideas, stories, emotions, and background. This all leads you to making sure you’re actually solving the right business problem.

Brainstorming Tools: 10x

This is where the buzzwords and financial target-hitting of the business world start to creep in. ‘10x’ refers to a type of thinking — or in this case, a version of brainstorming tools — whereby you try to generate ideas that could be worth 10x growth as opposed to 10% growth. You’re chasing unicorns, baby!

Here’s the sad reality of many work teams. The team leader claims they’re amazing and innovative and growth-focused, and in reality they’re not at all. Not every team can be superstars. If every team was superstars, the definition of the word ‘superstar’ would be totally watered down. Each team has good performers, not-so-good performers, drones, slackers, Type-A guys, etc. That’s how it works. So you might not get close to finding that 10x growth idea, but the basic concept with brainstorming tools at this stage is … don’t swat down ideas. Let people be crazy. Push the boundaries. In 99.9% of cases, it goes nowhere. But if you let people have that freedom as one of their brainstorming tools, it’s possible that you will find a 10x idea.

Brainstorming Tools: Prototyping

Tech companies and product companies tend to be better at this, and a lot of other companies tend to be awful at it. Prototyping is crucial because we’re all visual people — we process images and video 60,000x faster than we process text — so we want to look at something and interact with it before we say “yay” or “nay” to it. This stage of brainstorming tools doesn’t necessarily imply that you need to show up to a brainstorming session with a bunch of prototypes, but it does imply that you need to understand the crucial role of the prototype in how people will ultimately evaluate your idea or concept.

Brainstorming Tools: How does innovation really work?

To be completely honest, no one really knows how innovation works. I can tell you that work isn’t actually set up to drive innovation forward — work is much more about keeping people in check using process — but in general, any growth concepts do tend to come from customers. (Hence, “know your user” is a pretty important first step in your brainstorming tools database.)

We have such a robust leadership industry — consultants, books, coaches, trade shows, etc. — because no one has mastered this stuff yet. What’s the best way to get ideas from people? How do we reward underlings for having good ideas, as opposed to viewing them as a big old threat to our perch as a VP? How do we motivate? How do we draw innovation out of people? How do we let people work on projects on their own time that might prove beneficial to the company?

Because we don’t have set answers to these questions — and remember, business is still very much a place where ‘what’s measured is what matters,’ so not having answers scares people — we keep (hopefully) trying and iterating to make them succeed. That’s the essence of brainstorming tools. If you call a brainstorming meeting, the chances you come out of it with a $55M profit pop idea are fairly slim. But just by trying to move the ball a little bit forward — and by trying to make your people understand how the different parts of business planning fit together — you’re at least a little bit on the right track.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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