One of the problems with brainstorming and its more formalized offspring, creative problem solving (CPS), is that while it has specific rules for generating lots of ideas, it is vague when it comes to the process of choosing one or more ideas to develop. As a result, the action taken at the end of a brainstorm is often a vague vote for the “best idea”. Sadly, in most companies, government offices and other organizations, the best idea is not the most creative. Moreover, voting for the best idea only creates a democratic trend towards the safest, most conventional, most familiar ideas. Indeed, if you want to choose the most creative ideas to develop at the end of a brainstorm, I suspect you would have better results if you asked participants which ideas they would least like to implement. My guess is that this would identify the most creative ideas—however, this is only guess.
As result of this vagueness, too many brainstorms and related idea collection initiatives result in a pot of unacted-upon ideas. Likewise, many companies’ suggestion scheme and idea management software contain databases full of ideas that have not been developed further. At workshops and conferences, I sometimes ask the audience how many of them have participated in a brainstorm—almost everyone’s hand goes up. If I then ask how many of those brainstorms resulted in highly creative ideas being implemented, very few hands remain standing. Sometimes none.
IF THERE IS ONLY ONE IDEA…
In anticonventional thinking (ACT) which focuses on developing a big idea—rather than lots of little ideas—this is less of a problem. By questioning, debating, criticizing and improving the big idea during the ideation phase, there is no need to select ideas at the end of the session. Moreover, the final step in ACT requires that participants prepare a step-by-step action plan defining what needs to be done to implement the idea and who should take charge off that step. The result: people leave the event with a big idea for achieving a goal together with a list of steps they need to take in order to make it happen.
Proponents of brainstorming argue that it is only by generating lots of ideas that we can find the most creative idea. They say that by focusing on a single solution (or a very small number of solutions), ACT may cause us to miss out on a much more creative idea. My argument is twofold. Firstly, their argument is based on an assumption. I know of no tests demonstrating that more ideas are necessary for a higher level of creativity. Secondly, if the aim of an ideation event is to achieve a creative goal (solve a problem with creativity), then an implemented idea is far more valuable than 100 creative ideas stuck to a whiteboard or sitting in a database.
Moreover, ACT emulates more closely the way highly creative people like artists, writers, composers and research scientists work. They seldom do “brainstorming” in its traditional sense. For example, a group of scientists trying to find a cure for a specific condition will gather a lot of information; formulate a single hypothesis (rather than a lot of ideas) often through argument and debate; and prepare an action plan to test the hypothesis. If their experiment does not work, they learn from it, revise their hypothesis and try again. A theater group wanting to stage a performance of Romeo and Juliet will discuss, argue and play with various ways to present the play until they settle on a particular theme. For example, they might decide to stage it in a modern, urban environment. Then they will build up ideas about scenery, scene setting, costumes and so on. Then various members of the group take responsibility for tasks (the director details each scene, the costume designer starts designing costumes, etc). In my experience, such creative collaborations do not brainstorm for lots of ideas and choose the best idea. Rather they have a creative discussion that eventually settles on a particular approach. Once this is set, it is developed through more ideas. Finally, when the concept becomes sufficiently solid, people take responsibility and get to work.
Consider that drama group and compare it to the last brainstorm you participated in. The drama group will inevitably perform Romeo and Julietusing ideas they built up during their preliminary conversation. What happened to the ideas submitted at your brainstorm?
If you want a creative thinking approach that leads to action, ACT is far more likely to succeed than brainstorming.