Brainstorming doesn’t work

Is it time to start thinking of ideas generation in a different way and sacrifice the sacred cows of old? Should we admit what people have known for sometime, that so-called traditional brainstorming doesn’t work?

Ideastorm, brainstorming, ideas generation, training workshopIf brainstorming is simply dumping a bunch of people in a boardroom and expect them to suddenly ‘get creative’ and come up with some amazing ideas then it’s no wonder it fails.

There are two key elements of the classic brainstorm that we want to examine and challenge here and they’re both wrapped up together:

  • Brainstorming is a group activity
  • There should be no judgmental, critical or negative attitudes in the meeting.

So lets get stuck in on some clear and simple facts on the matter: Firstly, let’s admit that it’s individuals who think of ideas, not groups. But we all know from personal experience that one of the things that can inspire an individual to think of a great idea is being in a group. But it has to be the right group.

…Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

– Johan Lehrer in the New Yorker, January 2012

Large groups or groups that contain political or power plays will not work. People will feel inhibited or too much pressure to perform or conform. All those things ruin the creative process in the mind.

This is why the original brainstorming condition is to have no negative or judgmental attitudes in the meeting. This is the main mantra of idea generation practitioners because most people are so lacking in confidence in their own creativity that one harsh comment will shut them down.

But there’s another reason to get the group dynamic right. Think about yourself for a moment. It’s really annoying to be in a group that doesn’t ‘get’ where you’re coming from or doesn’t let you speak. They might not have the inside track on the issues or they may not be as engaged in the theme as you are. They may not listen to your valuable insight, preferring the sound of their own voices. In any large group there’s bound to be some arrogance or envy and let’s face it, people you don’t like or don’t get on with.

This leads us to that brainstorming rule. The only way to deal with this problem is to level the playing field by bringing in the ‘don’t be rude and don’t be negative’ instruction. It creates the democracy to allow everyone equal say and have equal value. Sounds good in principle but in practice something else happens.

Research has been done that ‘proves’ that by not having debate, criticism and argument, a soft and fluffy nice meeting is manifested where too many diverse ideas are generated that cause ‘cognitive fixation’ . The mind gets blocked and fixated on those multitude of ideas and fails to break out into something innovative. Everyone is too busy being nice.

Too many organisations are running their sessions under these wrong conditions. They may have too many people, too many of the same type of people or too many disparate people.

By fixating on the democratisation of creativity are we mixing up the different types of contributions that individuals and groups can bring?

Perhaps we expect too much from an ‘idea’ meeting. Do we expect great original idea after great original idea? Perhaps what we should be aiming for is smaller quantum jumps from ideas put forward. Perhaps the role of a group is to fiddle with ideas put forward by individuals, who have already made intuitive leaps, and to improve those ideas?

Throughout history, groups and teams have out-performed individuals in the elaboration, expression, development and manifestation of an idea. Yes, an individual may be remembered as the one who ‘thought of it’, the the combined group mind always improves and builds on it.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney ink drawingWith the Beatles the main ideas generating group for their songwriting was John Lennon and Paul McCartney, working together to create all those hits. So here we have a brainstorming group of just two. They didn’t even let George in on the songwriting meetings, he and Ringo would have to wait until the songs were more or less finished and presented to the group to arrange and embellish.

But Lennon and McCartney didn’t run a ‘let’s be nice to each other’s views’ songwriting brainstorm. It’s well documented that their differences and disagreements would cause arguments and fights. And yet it was these differences that made them great (and the same differences would eventually pull them apart).

We have the stereotypes of McCartney singing the optimistic, “It’s getting better all the time” and Lennon add the sardonic, cynical, “couldn’t get no worse”.

They’d do that with each other, face to face, opposite each other with guitars. With McCartney being left handed they would have appeared as if looking into a mirror.

Paul would sing, “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean” and John would stop and say, “I LOVE that!”. In Hey Jude, Paul sings a line he was unhappy with, “the movement you need is on your shoulder” and John retorted, “don’t change it, that’s the best bit!”.

We now know that although all those Lennon-McCartney songs were credited as equal compositions, they were nearly all instigated by one of the pair first and then worked up afterwards, together, then further developed with the other members of their team.

Paul McCartney may have thought of the ‘idea’ for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. But it was the team of the four Beatles, their producer and engineers that embellished, elaborated, enhanced and manifested that idea into the record.

This should be our new model for brainstorming (or Ideastorming as I call it). Here are the new guidelines:

  • get a small group of two to five people who you trust. Could you bare to be stuck with them in traffic for eight hours? Could you bare to be stranded overnight with them?
  • each prime mover puts forward their ideas and the others help to change, embellish, enhance or reject them as an evolving debate.

Can it really be that simple? Actually yes. The secret to making brainstorming work was not to leave your brain at the door. All along we should have been using a healthy dose of common sense and realise that no strict formula or rules of ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this’ has any place in creativity.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Click here to learn about Ayd’s Ideastorm workshops.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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The Power of ‘What If?’

The Power of What if? Ayd Instone innovation creativity conference keynoteHow can we trigger innovative thought, consistently, deliberately and when we need it?

One way is to use the power of a simple question. It’s a question at the heart of creativity, invention and imagination. It’s the force behind all creative storytelling, especially Science Fiction which can be defined as ‘What If?’ extrapolated into a story).

The question ‘What If?’ can be thought of as an energy field that can power our creativity. Just like most energies, it can be used to manifest both positive and negative effects with very different results. The qualifying factor to the question is how we relate it to time.

If we ask ‘what if?’ about the past, which we have no control over, it can easily lead to feelings of regret. E.g. “What if that had never happened?”, “What if I’d worked harder?”

But if we apply it to the future it fires our possibility thinking and leads, either directly or indirectly, to hope.

“What if there was a better way to do this?”

If we imagine an undesired outcome in the future, our brains begin to work on methods to prevent that future coming to past, or at least find the path of least damage. Imagining even our worst fears of the future gives us hope because we are still in the present with some chance, however small, to shape and even change the future.

If we imagine a desired outcome, our brains begin to fill in the gaps to speed the passage of the present into the desired future by directing our subconscious to incubate the problem until solutions or opportunities present themselves.

The application of ‘what if?’ fires the imagination and problem solving capacities of the brain and that imagination begins to manifest the emotions of the outcome.

This isn’t an application of the supernatural, so-called ‘law of attraction’. This isn’t about asking the universe, or God, or wishful thinking. This is the relatively simple neuroscience of the imagination.

Negative emotions based on regret will slow us down, but positive emotions based on desired outcomes, hope and wonder, will drive us and motivate us to seek out and manifest the desired outcome.

Wondering ‘what if?’ defines us as scientists, exploring the universe of possibilities. Taking action on those possibilities to manifest an outcomes makes us artists. It’s this blend of being both artist and scientist is what it means to be a creative mind.

Asking the question and seeking the answer is the start of creative innovation. That’s the power of ‘what if?’

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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Think big, think bigger: What I learnt from Richard Branson

Richard Branson at NAC, Excel, LondonI was fortunate enough to see Richard Branson speak at the close of a three day event at the London Excel conference centre last week. There were reportedly 7500 people in attendance. He was interviewed by Michael Burke, and quite nervous.

“Create something that makes a difference to people’s lives”

That was his overall message, and he felt, the secret to his business success. In a way we could call that the blueprint for the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire. You can probably make a million by ripping people off, many do. But to make a billion, you have to provide something useful and be liked, you have to get on with people. Branson was clear on making peace with his enemies such as the chief executive of BA who pulled a dirty tricks campaign on Virgin Atlantic to try to bring the airline down. Branson took him out for lunch to shake hands. When asked if he had the same kind of “you’re fired!” attitude to Sir Alan Sugar, Branson replied that he would never aim to fire someone. If they’re not performing well he’ll try to find out why, perhaps they need to be moved to a different position. If the person is still disruptive and nothing can be done then obviously they’d have to move on, but that would be a last resort. Branson was keen to see Virgin as a family. A family that invites in the right people in the first place.

This is what Branson would have seen from the stage

“You wouldn’t fire your son or daughter from your family” he said. His opinion on companies and their relationship to their employees was important to him.

“A good leader will promote well above what people will expect. (We need to) …ask companies to think about much more flexibility about how their people work. As a leader, you’ve got to be a great listener.”

When 9/11 happened Virgin lost £300 million in a week. He had to make drastic decisions to save the business and that meant offering voluntary redundancies. He told the employees that they would be first back in when conditions were back to normal. He kept to that and within 12 months everyone who had left was back again. He was sad he’s had to sell some of the companies assets – some property and the music business, but that had been necessary to keep the main businesses going.

The most exciting, and moving, part of the interview was his description of the Virgin Galactic space programme. We’ve got to bare in mind that after this month, NASA won’t have an active space programme – but Branson will. You can just imagine him trying to convince his shareholders, not to mention his engineers that they were going to be the first private company to offer space tourism!

What became powerfully clear was that he was deadly serious. This was no hot-air ballon trip. For $200k you can book a seat into space. Branson thinks he can get the price down to $50k in the near future. But why do it? He pointed out that everyone who has ever gone into space has been transformed by the experience. He wants to offer that experience to as many people as possible. When you think that big, other ideas and opportunities spring off it. He said that a spin off from Virgin Galactic will be that in the future you’ll be able to fly from the US to Australia in around 2 hours. With the cost of space travel coming down so low, he imagines schools and universities being able to create satellites that Virgin Galactic will be able to launch into orbit. This is momentous stuff when you consider that passage on the Russian Mir spacecraft is currently in the realm of $100 million.

Not my helicopter, it was Richard’s…

Although he grew up in a middle class, well off family and attended public school, he felt that his success came from his ability to be self-sufficient from an early age. At one point his mother turned him out of the car and told him to make his own way to Grandma’s house. (“Today she’d be arrested” he said).

His opinion is that “Schools are almost there to make people conform” and that “we have to find our own way, to stand out and stand up for ourselves”.

So what was Branson’s secret? How did he do it?

“If I see something that’s not being done very well, I’ll try to do it better. Go for quality. Be the best at whatever you do. Otherwise there’s no point in doing it”

He was also flexible and creative when it came to coping with problems. He was not ashamed to talk about his mistakes and his failures. When his newly launched Virgin Music mail order company was launched he was faced with an elongated postal strike. He changed his plans to accommodate the new environment and instead opened his first retail store.

Finally he was asked what advice he could give to the audience (the question that Sir Alan Sugar had refused to answer the previous day).

He paused, smiled and then said his now famous catchphrase:

“Screw it, just do it!”

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Creativity Leadership

What is a business leader? Often it’s the person who makes the final decision, perhaps the owner, chairperson, chief executive or senior manager Are these people creative? Should they be?

Being in a senior position in an organisation does, by its very nature, move a business leader away from the day-to-day ‘on the ground’ elements of that business. That’s why they employ managers to manage and workers to work. The downside of being in this type of leadership position is that the main source and use of creativity in the organisation appears to be completely out of the leaders hands and control. Having managers to run systems and workers to actually do the job is supposed to mean that leaders don’t get their hands dirty anymore, freeing them up to see the bigger picture.

This means that they are in no position to be able to apply innovation, to find new and better ways of doing things because they simply don’t have the details and facts on how the systems and process work on the micro scale.

This is why business leaders have to take a slightly different approach when it comes to unlocking creativity or increasing innovation in their organisations. The first thing they have to realise is that the most creative people in their business who are really in charge of innovation are not themselves. Instead it is the people who have all the data on how things work, all the people who are working inside the machinery of the business. It is so often micro-changes within, on the shop floor, that will make the big differences. It still needs someone who has the ability to take an overview of the whole system, but that someone must know all the facts, costs, timings and structure of that system. This is why it is so important to make sure that workers see the big picture and that line managers have the ability and confidence to notice where improvements can be made.

A business leader therefore takes on a new type of leadership role. They are not concerned with running systems, like a line manager does, or even managing those managers. A 21st century business leaders main role is to manage, or rather facilitate, the creativity of those managers and departments. The key to successful creativity leadership is the ability to foster an environment conducive to ideas, development and change in a structured and progressive way. This is the essence of creativity leadership.

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My Nigeria visit – part 3

This month I travelled to Nigeria to give a series of talks and workshops on Creativity and Innovation to the Young Presidents Organisation, a chief executive group in Lagos. Here are some conclusions about my trip.

The Mindset

All the business leaders I spoke to in Lagos were all under 50 and although many were Nigerian, some from 3rd generation families, non were indigenous Nigerians. Instead they had originated in India, the Lebanon, elsewhere in Asia and one from Europe. Were there any black Nigerian business leaders? Yes, I was told, but one of YPO’s recurring problems is to draft them into the organisation. Nigeria has a complicated and checkered recent history. It seems to have a slightly different attitude to some of it’s West African neighbours. Nigerians want things to be cheap and they don’t want to pay for things they don’t need. So much so that many people don’t have bank accounts, partly because they are so poor, but also because of a distrust of any system that costs them money. This gives rise to a very ingenious people. I was told a story about one man who wanted to send money to his daughter hundreds of miles away. He bought a phone card and told his daughter the activation code over the phone. She then sold this number, this transferring money without a bank. This innovative thinking, this entrepreneurial spirit is hard-wired in to the people. But there’s a dark side to it, that anyone who you mention ‘Nigeria’ to will be able to state straight away: scams and corruption.

We’re lucky in western Europe and the USA that corruption is rare enough to still shock us. Even with the ingrained greed and outrageous expenses claims from UK MPs that’s dominating the headlines at the moment, we still believe in honesty and that somehow all will be put right, and if it isn’t we can actually make a fuss about it. African countries often don’t have this luxury. In Nigeria there is corruption at the highest level where millions of gallons of oil (Nigeria has recently found itself rich in oil and other raw materials) just vanish. Individuals have individually stolen billions of dollars from the state. The problem is when this happens at the very top of a country (or an organisation), somehow it filters down, unconsciously to people at every level.

In the mythology of King Arthur this concept is called ‘One Land, One King’ – when the King is sick, the land and people are sick. A friend of mine has toured hundreds of schools in the UK over the past 15 years. He has collected a vast amount of data that shows that if the head of a school is present, positive and engaged in their school, the children he performs his environmental comedy shows to will be well behaved and engaged. If the opposite is true, the children will be unruly. Somehow, large groups of people will take on some of the characteristics of their leaders. This is why we must always lead by example as business leaders, managers and parents with the moral behaviour we want duplicated by others.

Nigeria seemed to personify this theory. Corruption is rarely just at the top. Scamming permeates all levels of society. So many people are out to get what they can get while they can get it. I was only in Nigeria for a very short time and may seem unjustifiable to make sweeping statements on so little evidence, but it seems to me that it is a country that has fantastic potential that for some reason, is not being realised.

What seems to have happened is that the innovative entrepreneurial spirit that lives within many of the people is sometimes powered by the ‘dark side of the Force’ – by purely self-centred motivation – to get what I can get for myself without regard for anyone else. This is what corruption is and what scamming is. Entrepreneurship is different: it also benefits others, by employing people or by providing things people want. True and long lasting successful business has a two-way flow of benefits. Selfishness, akin to ‘the dark side’ may appear more powerful in the moment than altruism and good deeds, but in the long run it is self limiting.

The businesses I met discussed the problems they had overcoming this lack of shared goal mentality when recruiting labour, at every level, for their organisations. They talked of how some Nigerians often mistrusted foreigners, mistrusted immigrants and mistrusted each other. This mistrust and lack of self-esteem resulted in superstitious behaviour such as the belief that anything made in Nigeria was no good, no matter what the quality appeared to be (and even if the price was less than foreign imports.) Even when vast oil deposits were found which could offer the nation real wealth and a way out of the chains of history, this lack of confidence in their country and themselves disappointingly continues the cycle of mistrust and corruption.

When I was being driven through the ‘centre’ of Lagos, there was not much that was recognisably ‘the centre’. Unlike every other city I’ve seen it appeared to have no recognisable focal point. No shops collected together, no municipal buildings, cathedrals or temples. There were no apparent public spaces or parks that I could see. This to me is a microcosm of the problem: there is not much of consequence shared. I asked my hosts if there were any national heroes in sport, entertainment or even politics or religion. There seemed to be nobody of consequence. No-one that everyone could get behind. Anyone who was a possible hero was always able to be split up into tribal delineations: being from the north or the south, black or white, Christian or Muslim and within those further subdivisions. The only thing everyone agreed on was a love of English football (and Manchester United in particular).

There are warning signs here for nations like the UK: have we lost pride in our country and what it produces? Does the corruption with some MPs mean that many of us think it’s ok to steal pens from our employers, or charge our mobile phones at work?

Obviously I’ve over simplified it here, but to me, this lack of shared vision, of having a big picture to look at is why the city was made from an array of individual concrete block buildings with no central focus. With no shared goals coming from leadership that serves everyone, the message of working together is just not getting through. We need to ask ourselves these questions. As a business leader, manager or parent, am I clear in my vision and goals and have I communicated it in a sharing, giving way to those whom I have sway over? Do I dictate rules that I rarely follow? Do I give orders without sharing the purpose and meaning of the task? Do I share and endeavour to make clearer, the big picture?

These are all right-brain thinking skills and this is how you motivate people to awaken their innate creativity. It was what I was over in Nigeria to talk about.

I really enjoyed my brief stay and my hosts were very welcoming and generous. There’s work to be done there, and the leaders I met are doing a great job in making it happen. If you get a chance, you should go too. I’d love to go back and learn more.

(Photos: From top to bottom: Me and Ali, my host. The ‘centre’ of Lagos. Most of the city was ‘under construction. Houses by the coast.)

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