The WSJ article suggests that brainstorming meetings aren’t effective because people can’t schedule creativity. The story cites research that found four people working alone created more ideas than four people working together; it also quotes several managers who believe that brainstorming meetings are ineffectual.
Jeffrey rightly criticizes the story by noting that some of the arguments against such meetings—people afraid to speak up, people grandstanding, people getting blamed for bad ideas—are more of a problem with corporate culture than brainstorming itself. He also suggests that it’s absurd to think that a group of people with different backgrounds can’t develop more creative ideas than each on their own. Finally he notes that people need to prepare for brainstorming sessions and that in the absence of preparation and a strong leader/facilitator these meetings will go nowhere, as would any other unprepared, poorly-led meeting.
Jeffrey is correct, in my opinion, but I do think that the WSJ article makes valid points, perhaps just not as explicitly as Jeffrey. The WSJ suggests that brainstorming meetings need to be followed up with individual idea development, and that the outcome of the brainstorming meeting is just the start of creating ideas, not the conclusion.
Getting 15 R&D people together for a morning to decide what the next product should be will likely generate nothing uniquely different from what your competitors would develop from a morning’s worth of thought (assuming both companies have reasonably bright people). What’s obvious to you will be obvious to them. This kind of meeting alone isn’t going to create the differentiating innovation being sought. What is going to generate new ideas that differentiates you from your competitors is the process that you take to develop the ideas.
Personally, I prefer to have one expert investigate a problem deeply, and then have a group discussion/debate after a proposal has been created. That is, don’t start with a blank whiteboard and have a group try to fill it out together—start with a thought-out initial proposal and then brainstorm on top of what is being recommended.
The main point that should be taken away from both the WSJ column and Jeffrey’s post is that brainstorming requires both extensive preparation and followup. Over my career, I’ve been to many brainstorming sessions where just beforehand people stop whatever work they were doing, go to a conference room for an hour or two, and then go back to whatever their daily job is afterwards. They show up without any preparation, and the final outcome of the session is a list of ideas created during that 1–2 hour session, and that’s it. Not only is there a good chance that they are not in a creative frame of mind, but they are not likely mentally prepared to discuss ideas. The result of these meetings is often a list of ideas that are no more insightful than what a group of people might come up with over a lunchtime discussion—certainly not the outcome upper management is looking for from such situations.
If I look at how ideas are created in academia, what’s clear is that ideas are not generated in such a formal process. Sure, a lab group might get together to discuss ideas and develop proposals for future research, but those ideas will have evolved from many other discussions and from a long period of thought. The key difference is that a typical corporate R&D engineer may not have the opportunity for such extensive thinking about future directions; they will, however, still generate ideas, just not during a scheduled 1–hour time period.
A starting point to address this issue is to develop a way for people to capture their ideas whenever they occur. Some people will only have ideas while working hard to solve a problem. Others will get inspiration when reading something completely unrelated to their work. Some in the shower, some while driving. None of these are during the brainstorming session, and a means for storing and bringing these ideas to the session is necessary.
So, does this all mean that brainstorming meetings are useless? Not by any means, but people have to come prepared with ideas. They must have saved the ideas that they’ve accumulated over the past, and they must have given some deeper thought to those ideas so that the discussion can be more than the equivalent to lunchtime chat. What are the benefits and detriments to the idea? Why hasn’t it happened already? What is necessary for it to be a success? What is needed to demonstrate its value?
Google gives people just a few minutes to pitch their idea to the head of web products. This means that you had better become an advocate for that idea; it must be developed and you must be able to defend it. Think of yourself as a lawyer in front of a judge with 5 minutes to plead your case. Don’t just say “My client is innocent”: explain why, and anticipate arguments against your case so that you can defend it.
Assuming that all of this has been done and valuable ideas have been created, the next step after a brainstorming session is to investigate them further, flesh them out, and then decide which ideas to pursue. This can be a significant amount of work. Don’t just assume that the most popular idea from the meeting is the best one—consider any ranking of ideas from the meeting to be guidance only, not the final word. Important details most likely were not brought up initially and will only surface upon deeper reflection.