Reverse brainstorming: A better way to generate creative ideas

brainstorming

When we consider ‘how aha really happens‘ the traditional method we use for generating creative ideas, brainstorming, has flaws. Ask your friends, when do they have their best ideas? They will seldom answer, ‘during a brainstorming session’. Most likely it was in the shower, while driving and stuck in traffic or while daydreaming. The fact of the matter is ‘we can’t schedule creativity’ because we don’t know when that ‘aha’ will strike. Yet despite this basic human process we find that managers schedule a specific time for teams to come up with creative ideas.

This is not how creativity works in our brains. (Read page two of ‘How Aha really happens’):

“Over the past decade, neuroscientists have come a long way in figuring out how ideas form in the human mind. As it turns out, their findings contradict how most companies understand and organize innovation. But very few executives know that. They continue applying their conventional wisdom, unaware that science has overturned it.”

Another common belief is that having diverse people involved in a brainstorming session improves idea generation and selection. While this is true that doesn’t mean that the human element of ‘bias’ doesn’t exist. Group dynamics stifle innovation:

For example, in brainstorming sessions several people can quickly dominate a conversation often restricting the sharing of all potential ideas. In other cases, individuals may think less critically about a problem because they are happy to let others do the heavy lifting.  And, those people who lack confidence or internal credibility are more likely to practice self-censorship within peer groups. Finally, groups can be a breeding-ground for organizational barriers such as cultural norms and management bias that limit creativity and critical thinking.

Ok so now what?

Hybrid Model of Brainstorming

I think a better way of brainstorming is doing the opposite of typical brainstorming. For example, instead of brainstorming in groups to solve a particular problem at a particular time, setup a weekly meeting and let people bring in ideas on any subject that strike them at any time during the week. Interesting right?

Also in a traditional brainstorming session the group picks out the idea right there. Instead, don’t decide right away. Because if you brought an idea on any topic at all, the rest of the group might not have thought about the topic before. They’ll greet you with a blank stare in their face.

So instead of evaluating your idea the group will ask you to explain the idea as best you can, including all the elements that you combined in your head to come up with the idea. Then everyone goes off and think about individually and the discussion can continue over emails, telephone or in person. Eventually, a promising idea might emerge from the pack. At that time, it’s time for the ‘What Works Matrix‘ as an individual or group exercise.

Bottom line is creating the element of surprise at the beginning of idea generation. Because if you don’t create surprises you aren’t innovating.

Reverse brainstorming isn’t new

Now that you know how creativity works in the brain, the point is that our brains make connections continuously without us being aware of it. And because this is a natural human process, it’s key that we take advantage of in a whole week or month and not just in a two hour session.

Now, new research suggests that this hybrid model of brainstorming is more effective than the traditional one. While the research may be new, the practice is not. Firms such as IDEO have been doing this for years. They’re well known for including people from diverse backgrounds in all their meetings, essentially preparing a cocktail mix of ingredients to generate creative ideas.

This is how creativity works in the brain.

Obstacles don’t go away easily

Personally, I practice this model of brainstorming myself but have encountered problems. For example, if you’re the only one who brainstorms this way you’ll end up generating ideas that make no sense to others. They’ll think you’re nuts but at the same time they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt since you seem to have all the cool non-conventional ideas. Another problem is that people are used to brainstorming and selecting an idea right there. They don’t want to give an idea time to ‘simmer’ in their brains because of the bias for action. And also because they have more ‘important’ things to do in their routines and supposedly have no time to think. Blah!

So what to do?

Well you have to get people on board in the new way of brainstorming. My recommendation is ‘educate’ your team on how creativity works in our brains so they become aware of their own tendencies. This isn’t necessarily going to eliminate all obstacles but it’s an effective way to get people to believe, and as a plus they’ll feel smarter.

Thoughts? Do you practice a version of reverse brainstorming?

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  • I’m with you in spirit, but could see how in some groups he “explanation” of the idea being shared could easily devolve into a pro-con debate or defensive discussion. Using something like Edward deBono’s Six Thinking Hats might help prevent that.

    I also have fond memories of an organization that posted a question of the week in the employee lounge. people posted ideas, additional questions on the graffitti wall throughout the week, often building on what others had shared. The entire sheet of thinking was then brought into an actual meeting where all of the input was discussions and decisions were made.

    • Hi Jeffrey,

      I feel you. No doubt there’s battles but it’s important to maintain perspective. Haven’t tried de Bono’s method but can see how it can apply. Have you?

      That’s an interesting story. It’s one of those proud ‘happy to be part of it’ moments when everything just seems to fit in place. BEA-utiful!

      Cheers,

      Jorge

  • Jorge,

    Excellent post. I would disagree with you regarding scheduling innovation, creative time. Like an athlete innovation and creativity requires exercises, individually and in group sessions.The intangible becomes the tangible.

    We are the creators of the future theatre, or as Pine and Gilmore eloquently stated, ‘the world is our stage and we are the actors.’

    Those aha moments can become second nature. How? Ever try explaining Quantum Physics to folks. 😉 Well it got me coined as a space cadet, you know the story I could not make them liars, thus I started looking for ET in the heavens.

    Get ‘To The Actor’ by Michael Chekhov. I will buy it back from you at 5x if you do not see value and results from the exercises. My first hypothesis was on myself, and then I moved to the largest skeptic on earth, our daughter. After she read the book and performing the exercises in a group setting, two years in a row she was the grand champion at the county fair.

    Without exercising the innovation and creativity within ourselves, brainstorming can be like a figure eight going nowhere, whether in reverse, forward, or sideways.

    The more you use the exercises in the book the subconscious starts to kick in and without you even noticing it….priceless, especially when this is transferred to others. In a group setting, whether called brainstorming or another semantic pure magic happens with those aha and eureka moments.

    The mantra, ‘imagining creates reality’ was birthed after reading the book and real-world usage.

    Have I gone mad? 😉

    Cheers…Steve

    • Hi Steve,

      Oops! I think I made a boo-boo with my example. Think I took another door, usually an approach that is less practiced. However, I fully agree with you that we can schedule it, that’s why we have all of these fire-starter creative techniques from de Bono and Michalko to force us. We can all play mind tricks with ourselves to get us there at any time.

      What I do think is these tricks are ‘incrementals’ as they build on each other and create momentum. But the more unknown, out of the ordinary insights come when we leave the problem alone for awhile and go do something else that isn’t related to the problem; it’s when that flash of insight strikes when we least expect it. For some reason that’s how I get mine, after some reflection. Haven’t quite gotten great at doing it on command as you suggest so I’m definitely intrigued 🙂

      Interesting book, I’ve always wanted to try acting LOL! Especially after spending a lot of time in Disneyland when I was a kid. Thanks for the insights 🙂

      I’m sure your daughter is now your #1 fan as you turned her into a believer and gave her some wings for life!

      Thanks for the insight Steve!

      Cheers,

      Jorge

  • Kevin Mcfarthing

    Hi Jorge,

    I like this post. It stimulates a new approach. It also builds on Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From. For a fantastic white board animation, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU

    It’s not a case of either/or, you can use many different approaches to new ideas. Traditional brainstorming does work; the reverse method above will, I’m sure, also work; using evolutionary methods to help build on the ideas of other people will also work.

    Whichever option you choose, my recommendation is to encourage all sources, but don’t rely on serendipity, schedule brainstorming sessions as well (the method is your choice).

    Kevin

    • Hi Kevin (@innovationfixer),

      Thanks. I haven’t read the book but have watched the video before.

      Are you saying don’t rely on serendipity ever, or don’t just rely on it as the only option?

      I know where you’re coming from and fully agree with your recommendation, I actually do it all the time. As I told Steve above, my natural inclination is towards serendipity but I complement it with daily brainstorming. And upon reflecting on this, this is post was born 🙂

      Cheers,

      Jorge

      • Kevin Mcfarthing

        Hi Jorge,

        Yes, I’m saying do both. Brainstorming works, I’m convinced the method you outline will also work. I also wouldn’t criticise the thought that comes in the shower or while driving to work etc.

        Cheers

        Kevin

  • Nice post with some useful suggestions about how to improve the utility of ‘brainstorming’.

    I’ve thought of the term ‘reverse brainstorming’ a little differently… Specifically, I think of it as a brainstorming technique where participants engage in a conventional brainstorming type activity but it’s focused on deliberately brainstorming the ‘wrong’ ideas. For example, instead of brainstorming ideas for how to get students to recycle their waste at school, you instead brainstorm ideas for how to ensure they DON’T recycle their waste. Reversing the problem in this way tends to create an environment of fun and freedom because the stress of coming up with the ‘right’ answer is removed. Have posted some more thoughts about how I’ve used this technique at http://webbyclare.com/2010/09/01/how-aiming-for-the-wrong-solution-can-lead-you-to-the-right-one/

    • Hi Clare (@webbyclare),

      I like your reversal approach. It opens up the can of beans quite nicely by revealing possible assumptions that people take for granted. Bookmarked!

      Thanks for sharing,

      Jorge

  • Anonymous

    Nice post, and agree with nearly all of what you say. Classic brainstorming is a blunt edged sword for ideation; better to enhance the technique to introduce more surprise, and allow for incubation.

    Consider adding to your formula virtual ideation, using an Idea Management System. This allows for people to jam an idea into a storage space at that odd moment when it occurs. Then when one of those regular meetings occur, time can be spent doing further idea development and concept writing.

    • Hi Mr. Fraley (@greggfraley),

      Thanks for the add and fully agree with your suggestion. I know about Bright Idea, Spigit and a few others. In your opinion what’s a good idea management system?

      Thanks again,

      Jorge

      • Anonymous

        Those are both good systems, lots of players in that space. Hubbub is a new entry, CogniSteam in Chicago is another option. And Imaginatik. They all have something to offer. It really depends on your size and needs.

      • Spigit is ‘heavy’ on the interface side. Teepin interface is much more ‘lightweight’. Teepin.com

  • “We need men who can dream of things that never were.” – John F. Kennedy

    the McKinsey quarterly recently had an excellent article where they call brainstormin’ as brainsteerin’. The original article is here http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Seven_steps_to_better_brainstorming_2767 but if you dont want to ‘register’ with them just to view this article I have condensed the article in my blog: http://mohanarun.com/seven-steps-to-better-brainstorming/

  • ckhutch

    Where does the comic at the beginning of the article come from?