You know, that game the kids play these days where they ask you things like “Would you rather cut your arm off with a pen knife or poke out both your eyeballs with a dull stick?”
Either way – ouch!
Now how about this one: Would you rather spend 12 hours in a dentist’s chair or 12 hours in a corporate brainstorming session?
I bet many of you would choose the dentist’s chair.
Corporate brainstorming sessions tend to be painful. You sit in a stuffy, windowless room under fluorescent lighting.
If you’re lucky, you actually get a seat at the grown-up table. If not, you’re backed up against the boardroom wall, stuck in an uncomfortable chair balancing your laptop and coffee, while staring at the backs of colleagues’ heads.
Sticks and Stones
Then there’s the schoolyard antics. Ever tried to brainstorm in a room full of your peers (and superiors)? Crickets, you say? Exactly. Who wants to be the first doofus who throws out “the dog barks at midnight” when asked to free associate around, for example, the term “innovative window blinds.”
People don’t, and won’t, get creative because they are too afraid of looking stupid, getting teased, or worse – feeling bullied – because they took a chance and tossed out a supremely crazy idea. And that goes against the very ethos of brainstorming.
The granddaddy of brainstorming is Alex Osborn. In 1948, while a partner in the advertising agency BBDO, he released the book “Your Creative Power.” Osborn’s most followed idea in the surprise bestseller was this one: “When a group works together, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” which means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”
While the idea that the creative human brain works best in group situations was eventually debunked by a Yale University study in 1958, group creative collaboration was here to stay.
And while Osborne preached ‘safe haven brainstorming’ with no dissent or debate, more recent studies have shown when brainstorming groups are allowed to challenge each other’s ideas (not demean or embarrass mind you), they actually come up with close to 20 percent more new ideas.
Brainstorming for Grown-ups
I’ve worked with some seriously brilliant brainstormers in my day (although we always called it ‘blue sky’ing’ an idea or concept). These people knew how to get individuals down and dirty in their thinking. How to group people into competitive teams to do improv or kindergarden crafts.
How to strip away the veneers of humanity, if you will, so people felt comfortable enough to say the most ridiculous thing that came to mind, in fact the ridiculous’er the better. Healthy debate and constructive criticism were encouraged. It was a bit like Survivor, but without the sand fleas and swimming challenges.
Brainstorming has evolved into an invaluable tool for most businesses. But please. Allow contributing staffers to feel safe from immature schoolyard bullying. And try and take your brainstorming sessions out of the corporate boardroom. Rent a space. Sit on a patio if the weather’s nice. If you must stay in the office break people into smaller teams and toss them into different – less claustrophobic – offices.
Most importantly, stay respectful of one another, and aim for large quantities of ideas instead of immediate quality. Who knows? Your group might just come up with something that gets you written up in the history books.