Why you shouldn't brainstorm

Brainstorms are overrated. At least in the way they are done and taught by innovation practitioners from design-thinking.

Specifically, they are overrated when it comes to developing solution concepts to address customer needs of any complexity.

How the classic group brainstorm works

The typical group brainstorm begins with rules such as the above posted on a whiteboard or screen. Everyone is given some sticky notes and told to create 100 ideas in 60 minutes to address some vaguely defined customer problem.

Here's the output of the session:

What's going wrong with brainstorms

The brainstorm as a concept is great. Relying on human intuition and experience to develop solutions to problems.

But we must acknowledge the limitations and issues with the brainstorming approach.

Like many fields, partly what I think is going wrong is a lack of multi-disciplinary approach. Innovators consider themselves as creatives, intuitive people who are rebellious and don't need process or science-backed methods.

Of course, this is hubris - excessive pride blinding the ability to see one's flaws. As innovator practitioners, we benefit greatly from working with scientists to do systematic studies of creativity and what drives it and to then build new methodology.

Process does not hinder creativity, it enables it. Because there are behavioural flaws such as attachment to our ideas we must overcome that stifle creativity, and it is methods that help us remove this, not unhinged brainstorming.

Some realities of group brainstorming
Use constraints to enhance your brainstorms

Two things you can do to enhance your brainstorms. First, do them individually, not as a group. This gives people space and time to think through a problem properly and to develop well-rounded solutions.

Secondly, use constraints. I'll use Amazon retail platform as an example.

Scenario 1: I tell you to do a group brainstorm and to develop 100 ideas for how to improve the Amazon retail experience. The result is the graphic on the left. Tonnes of ideas, none of which consider what drives the fundamental customer experience and therefore what makes a good idea: ones that decrease the price of goods for customers while increasing convenience.

Scenario 2: I tell you to develop ideas that make the shopping experience more convenient while reducing the prices of goods. You get the graphic on the right.

You come up with 5-6 ideas rather than 100. All of these are in the direction of a good solution, and none of which are ideas that will lead to increases in price or decreases in convenience (speed of delivery etc).

When to use brainstorms

I believe brainstorming has its place, and I personally use it. Augmenting it with constraints is always useful. Use it when: 

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A picture of Scott Thomson, Google Head of Innovation, Customer Engineering, and adviser to Alto

Google's Scott Thomson

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