We live in this supposedly innovative and entrepreneurial age, and while that’s definitely true in some companies and geographic areas, by and large most of us are vomiting back the same processes in weirdly-lit conference rooms week after week. That’s just objective reality. It’s depressing, but hard to ignore sometimes.
If you went to some world-building executive and said you had some good brainstorming/innovation ideas from The Onion, he would probably laugh you out of the room and demand a slide deck with 44 Jeff Bezos quotes in it. But in reality, The Onion has been consistently doing its thing for about 30 years, and most people who’ve seen a headline have laughed at it, so it’s doing its thing well at scale too. We should be able to learn from how (the process) of it doing its thing.
That’s what this articleis all about — it’s written by a former writer for the site — and I need you to pay specific attention to these two paragraphs right here:
As we strive for more diversity in the workplace — creating spaces that respect all voices — there’s something innately exclusionary about the “get in a room and spitball” model. Not just that men have a propensity to dominate these rooms, ’cause we’re working on that right, guys? But it’s a space that caters entirely to extroverts. The rule of play at typical brainstorms is “Think out loud, be vulnerable, and put yourself out there.” But that’s not how everyone works.
However, you can give everyone an equal voice — it just requires giving them space to find it. Sci-fi author Isaac Asimov once wrote, “My feeling is that, as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required.” Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an entire book on the creative process called Big Magic, and nowhere in her beautiful depiction of finding ideas does she recommend sterile conference rooms or fluorescent lighting. Besides, just ask the partner of any creative person, and they’ll tell you that their craziest ideas do not come out in public.
This hit on a number of problematic issues of modernity, including — →
- Need for diversity
- Gender issues
- Prioritization of extroverts
- How to get at big ideas
- General brainstorming
- General innovation
Look at those bullets. If a company could solve for even two of those bullets, they’d be in the top 10 percent of functional companies in the world. Honestly. Make men sit the fuck down, get more diversity, and create legitimate ideas? Hell yea. Sign me up.
Now look, the hideous reality is that brainstorming makes no sense at all, and I think we all know that — but it’s largely a function of the brainstorming processand not always the actual content of what’s happening. So here’s two ways to fix that.
This helps with the introvert vs. extrovert problem, and it also helps in general to get good ideas. Basically, let everyone ruminate on the issue by themselves for a minute — ideally at least a half-day — before they need to come together and discuss.
This is what often happens: you are brought to an initial meeting, and if it’s a pitch process/new idea, usually some sales guy is in the room. The sales guy talks about having “a fish on the line” and what the fish needs, and then, without that much context and on the spot, someone is supposed to shit out brilliance. That’s not really how the game works or was ever supposed to work, so give people some time on the front end to think through the issue.
Think about it this way: you would never throw an engineer into a meeting and say “Give me the answer to this immediately,” because we’ve been trained to understand that engineers need rumination and prep time to solve our biggest problems. Treat more people like that.
Depersonalize the ideas
Anonymize them. Now, yes, if an idea gets crapped on, the person who proposed it will still know it’s their idea. But no one else will know, which reduces politics and biases creeping in.
Everyone goes and does their solo brainstorm, and then they submit ideas/concepts, and those are stripped of name and presented to the group. Now you’re helping the diversity issue, the gender issue, the speaking up issue, and more. You’re starting to have a better process for the ideation. Of course some wanker guy still might talk for 77 percent of the meeting, but … eh. You’re getting better. It’s not going to be perfect. The idea is to be better than you have been, and better than your competitors are going to be in some other shitty conference room somewhere.
And remember — oftentimes idea generation is just about persistence, or the idea of pushing forward just enough and bettering the process just enough that your idea can begin to catch on.