Your Ideation Sessions Are All Wrong, Here’s What I Changed

Blank faces, with the exception of the few who usually do all the talking. That’s what you are greeted with when you start your team’s usual retrospective. You were trained to run them by asking the usual questions, but don’t understand why nobody is offering anything new. You even changed the questions you asked trying to spice things up.

Yet, when you ask them out loud it feels like pulling teeth to get ideas from your team.

Ideas are the very core of our work. We need them to create the next great product for users. To find that one tweak in our workflow to optimize our teams work. To see the thing missing in our company culture. All that and so much more. For decades we’ve utilized a technique called brainstorming to generate these ideas.

For decades we’ve utilized a technique called brainstorming to generate these ideas. This tool has become so ubiquitous with idea-generation that we start sessions with, “let’s brainstorm some ideas” without even thinking.

Brainstorming is our go-to method for ideation, and yet it probably holds back our success.

This revelation was part of a paper I presented at Agile 2017 titled Brainwriting: The Team Hack To Generating Better Ideas. It’s also a workshop I have run at conferences this year. The feedback I often get mirrors my reaction to initial research into the topic.

“I knew brainstorming wasn’t all that great, but I had no idea why until now.”

Where did brainstorming come from?

Alex F. Osborn was an ad man working during the exciting time to be one. The Buffalo resident cut his teeth writing promotional copy during the War, afterward joining the firm Barton and Durstine. In the late 1940s and early 50s, he started publishing books on his industry. The more he wrote, though, his work turned from advertising to how he came up with his ideas.

Imagination was a strange topic at the time. Psychologists weren’t even too keen to explore it. Osborn was fascinated with it and published many works on it. My favorite quote of his refers to our own creative power as, “an Aladdin’s lamp, and if we rub it hard enough, it can light our way to better living.”

In 1953 he published Applied Imagination. In it, he revealed an idea-generating technique called brainstorming. It was built on four principles:

  • Hold back criticism until the creative current has had every chance to flow.
  • Quantity is more important at first in terms of idea generation.
  • Be wild in exploring the topic and think outside of the box.
  • These ideas should be combined and improved upon until we find the right one.

Sounds pretty agile, so what went wrong?

We know so much more about the workplace than ever before. Just like the innovation Osborn created more than 60 years ago, the modern office has improved. Diversity, which is still a major issue, is improving. Feelings and emotions are valued (to a degree). Companies care more about creating the right environment around motivated individuals.

Companies care more about creating the right environment around motivated individuals. Depending on your personality, though, team meetings don’t often allow you to contribute.

If you are focused on generating ideas, you’re not going to be a very effective listener. If someone tosses out an idea, and the reception from the room is icy because others are thinking, they might not be inclined to offer another. Or people may not speak up because their boss is in the room. Introverts always lose in environments like these too. Maybe someone comes from a culture where speaking out may not be encouraged.

As much as brainstorming cares about creating quality ideas, much of the office culture it resides in doesn’t.

So what do we do?

What if we could take away the social faux pas from trying to vocalize ideas in the office and refocus on generating ideas the way Osborn intended? To allow for personalities of all types to be successful, and create an inclusive environment for ideation.

Brainwriting, silent brainstorming as it’s sometimes called, intends to do exactly that.

My research led me to a study performed by the University of Texas – Arlington and the University of Tel Aviv. They explain brainwriting as a technique that involves writing ideas down on paper and passing it to a teammate. The neighbor then reads your ideas and then iterates on them. The only thing that matters is generating as many ideas as possible in the time box defined.

The perfect method for executing all four of Osborn’s principles.

In the paper, the researchers measured not only the quantity of ideas captured in the time frame but also the quality. I’ve also gathered some data from my workshops. In an exercise, we listed Agile barriers we see in our organizations. I’ve seen tables (one of them is pictured above) generate 150 ideas in as little as 10 minutes. Quality ideas too that can be acted upon immediately.

All it takes is someone facilitating, legal pads, pens, and a quiet environment.

It’s that simple, right?

Not quite.

Many of you might argue that you already do brainwriting on your teams. By using stickies on whiteboards, you might think that you’ve got the technique down. I did too when I first started incorporating brainwriting into team activities. There’s one key principle to Osborn’s description of brainstorming.

You can’t forget to combine and refine.

When I worked in advertising, I loved the pitch sessions where people threw out ideas. Then someone would offer, “that’s cool, but what if instead of this…we changed it out for this?” That was the beauty of verbally offering ideas. People would keep iterating on an idea until a gem was uncovered.

The same must occur in the silent version.

Encourage teams to stay at the whiteboard and read the thoughts of others. It allows them to ponder things they didn’t originally consider. Or, they can take two ideas and combine them. Or, refine the wording into something more powerful.

Doing this silently removes judgment. You just ponder them silently, which piques curiosity and focuses you on more ideas.

I’m still learning how to use this.

This is strange to some teams, and the more I introduce to this technique the more I learn. It won’t be a simple explanation and many will feel weird doing this. I would love to hear your stories of trying brainwriting on teams. Try this out and let me know how I can improve ideation sessions with teams.

Before I go, need to give a shout out to JB Chaykowsky. He’s an extremely talented designer, and also the one who introduced me to this topic.

When we were on the same team, I would remember him pulling me aside and questioning everything we did daily. Not because he disagreed with the decisions I made, but understanding the why behind it helped him engage. I had to be on top of my game if he was in the room for sure. We all need people in life that challenge the status quo we believe to be always true.


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