INNOVATION AND BRAINSTORMING SESSIONS

I doubt that in my 45 years of work I have ever been involved in a structured company brainstorming session that came up with some truly creative and innovative ideas that were actually successfully implemented or produced any discernible positive results for the company.

I accept the maxims that “None of us is as smart as all of us” and “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, but I believe that team brainstorming sessions are in the main a waste of time, energy and effort and do little for building teamwork nor driving innovation or creativity.

By Agripolare (own work); via Wikimedia Commons



We have become so obsessed with the whole concept of teamwork that while it rightly sits in every organisation’s value statement, it seems to have reached a point that there is a belief that if it is such a critical element of business success then it must be used in everything that we do.

There is no question in my mind that teamwork is a critical element for say sporting teams, and that it plays a major role in some elements of business need, such as putting together a team to fight and win a major competitive bid, or design and build a new product line, where bringing in different and complementary skills are critical for a successful outcome. It is also critical to build a co-operative company culture rather than one based on conflict.

I do not however believe that putting a group together in a formal brainstorming session achieves anything important beyond using up some time (usually at a management meeting) that the organiser is not sure how to fill effectively.

By Agripolare (own work); via Wikimedia Commons



One company I worked for had two meetings a year of the Senior Executive Team (SET) which consisted of the 12 member executive board plus about 30 of the next most senior executives in the company who would meet for two days to talk about the meaning of business life and other noble topics. They always included an afternoon of brainstorming/workshop sessions on topics selected by the CEO, and the goal was to have specific recommendations come back to him and the board in the form of presentations from each of the workshop groups. These Powerpoint presentations were duly collected with all due respect, but in my entire time on the board, never once did we ever discuss, review or implement any of them, so one has to ask the obvious question of “Why were they done at all ?”.

I believe that one of the main reasons is that in a hierarchical, structured company this is one way, albeit false, to make people believe that they have the ability to input into company direction.
These brainstorming (or workshop) sessions are meant to show that those at the top have an interest in the opinion of those below them. This is in the main false when it comes to such workshop output, as it is rarely new, different or innovative. It would have beeen unusual for example for the CEO to come up with any topics for discussion where direction hadn’t already been decided beforehand, which was something that the whole SET actually understood anyway, so most treated these sessions just as a welcome break from the powerpoint “tell” sessions that made up most of the meeting.

Author: Anthony Dubois; Source: Site du SCI; via Wikimedia Commons



I feel that the main reason that these brainstorming sessions are a waste of time is that innovation and creativity have to be part of a company’s DNA, so that it is an on-going, continuous process and not something that is driven by the occasional formal session. (See Innovation posted October 4, 2010). There is a belief amongst many in management roles that groups of people working together will come up with better ideas than one person working on his own, or a work team going about its normal tasks. Studies have shown that this is not necessarily true. A 2010 article in The Journal of Creative Behavior reports that “Groups of individuals generating ideas in isolation (nominal groups) generated more ideas and more original ideas and were more likely to select original ideas during the group decision phase than interactive group brainstormers.”

If you create an environment that encourages people to think and experiment I believe that they will do so. If you don’t, then no matter how many brainstorming sessions you have, if the culture is not supportive of creativity, it will not work.

The other belief is that in brainstorming sessions, the best ideas will float to the top as the work-group recognises these gems and then supports and builds on these in the brainstorming process. I have found that this also is not true. The ideas that come out of most brainstorming sessions are generally those that are advocated by the most vociferous and assertive of the group, rather than necessarily the smartest nor the most creative. The talkative, loud and dominating will always tend to override the quieter and less pushy ones in workgroups.

You can have as many brainstorming sessions as you wish, but I believe that they will never have as much impact on innovation and creative thought as building a culture that encourages people to feel safe in having new ideas and trying new approaches.

A lot has been written on “The rules for successful brainstorming” but I believe that even if these rules are followed the resulting output will still tend to be fairly ordinary. The simple fact that there are rules involved at all opposes and negates the environment needed for true creative thought.

Ultimately putting a group of people in a room and telling them to be original, imaginative and to “think outside the box” is ensuring that none of this will be possible.

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8 Responses to INNOVATION AND BRAINSTORMING SESSIONS

  1. Sam Bodeen says:

    Hi Les
    We believe that to think outside the box, you have to have worked in many other boxes and bring that knowledge to the table. We try to walk in someone else’s shoes for at least one week a year and it is surprising how many new ideas are created from that single week.
    It also builds empathy and better understanding of other people’s pain and gets the creative ideas flowing, as most people want to help someone else make their day easier.
    Then we pull all the ideas together, park them and forget about them and go sailing. Then out of nowhere the ideas start to take a real shape that we can deal with and so the idea becomes reality. its the sailing or the odd glass of wine that does the trick
    Sam

  2. leshayman says:

    Hi Sandy, are you suggesting that these team work sessions can work if alcohol is introduced into the picture ?? 🙂 Les

  3. Frank says:

    Hi Les, unfortunately your right, though I have found some brainstorming sessions “trigger my imagination and innovative juices”. But a some good reds at the brainstorming certainly can make it more enjoyable and potentially more creative. I wonder if the meetings fail because the “Chair” or “Sponsor” fails, ie fails to listen, fails to inspire innovation or fails to followup on innovative ideas because innovation is often outside the “square” and pushes the comfort (and risk) zones? rgds, Frank

  4. leshayman says:

    Hi Frank, I think that a good leader encourages people to be creative and innovative as a normal and expected way of life, and listens and inspires people to do so as an integral part of the “work-life” rather than having to put together a synthetic environment to tell people to “think out of the box”. One of the issues is that senior executives generally do not trust “creative” people, but the world has rarely been changed by “reasonable” ones. Les

  5. Sam Bodeen says:

    There is a grat book “A technique for Producing Ideas” by James Young.
    Sailing, golf or a great book can work just as effectively as wine the choice is yours.
    Sam B

    • leshayman says:

      Sandy,
      I have found that a glass of great wine with a good book, while someone else drives the boat does wonders for my relaxation, but not much for productive thought. 🙂 Les

  6. Satya says:

    Hi Les

    As always, a thought provoking post. I am not sure that the brainstorming sessions by themselves are not effective. While I was at a large company, I have been involved in a few with truly creative types (w/o one loud, dominating 600 lb gorilla in the room) and the outputs were significantly more innovative than what we had seen these people deliver when they were left to themselves.

    It’s a different matter that the ideas were not implemented by the ‘powers that be’. So while I agree with you that it may be a waste for larger organizations to stage these sessions, smaller firms and startups could still benefit from the concept of getting all the brainpower they have into a room to to focus on solving an issue or coming up with new ideas.. and of course, some good bottles of red would make it more fun !

    Satya

  7. leshayman says:

    Hi Satya, I have come more and more to believe that the best creativity and innovation happens when it becomes a part of “the way we work around here” being behaviour that is encouraged, rather than putting people in a room and telling them to be creative.
    Les

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