Apr 12, 2012

No More Brain Bashing

Marsha Plat's picture
Marsha Plat
Director, User Experience

A group of us at Hot have been discussing the recent bashing of brainstorming in The New Yorker and the various responses. Because the conversations have been so heated, I was intrigued to hear more from the author of the piece, Jonah Lehrer, in a recent Fresh Air story: 'Imagine' That: Fostering Creativity In The Workplace.

Lehrer describes recent scientific work around “insight” and describes the familiar feeling of gaining insights while taking showers or going for walks—doing anything that takes your mind off the problem and relaxes you. There are some great case studies in the story. In particular, he describes how product design firm Continuum came up with the idea for the Swiffer (and coincidently there was a post by a design strategist at Continuum saying that they don’t brainstorm, they have deliberative discourse).

At Hot, we hardly ever brainstorm in the traditional sense, but we frequently gather our brains to create a storm of ideas. Our brainstorming sessions almost always involve a period of time in which individuals think on their own and then share out. The key point is that we think independently and then collaboratively within the same session and in the same room. One of our standard "storms" is the Hopes & Dreams exercise that we do to kick off a project with a new client. This exercise works well because individuals have time to think independently, avoiding groupthink. After a period of quietly writing on Post-its with squeaky Sharpies, we share ideas one at a time and build upon them or generate new ideas. As we share, we categorize the ideas by moving the Post-its around on a whiteboard. It’s a quick way to generate a framework for what will constitute success, and get everyone’s buy-in.

A similar approach is used for sketching sessions. We sketch in groups of two up to twenty. We'll sketch with clients or just with the core team. (If our clients have trouble sketching we give them cut-outs and Post-it notes.) Whether we are sketching logos, home pages, or new product ideas, we use a similar process in which everyone draws independently first, and then shares, and then we build on the shared ideas. We can then group the sketches into a framework.

You might say, “Why not just have people sketch or think at their desk and then share them?” Being in the same room, at the same time, doing the same thing creates a group dynamic similar to an exercise class. It's true that I could do 15 sun salutations at home by myself, but I'm more likely to do them when I've shown up for yoga class (8:30am Tuesday mornings at Hot). The presence of the group creates a certain expectation and energy that causes me to work better. Food also helps. (I've noticed that I always make time to attend brainstorming sessions at Hot that include sushi and beer.)

Collaboration sessions work well when we follow the first rule of brainstorming: defer judgment. However, I've also seen sessions work in which we question, critique, and narrow down to a solution. It really depends on where the team is in the process. In the beginning of a project, it makes sense to be open-minded and generate many options and wild ideas. As the project progresses, it's necessary to be more critical and refine the ideas toward a workable solution. Scott Berkun does a great job of describing this need to diverge and converge in his response to Lehrer's article. Berkun’s points about needing a good facilitator and smart people are also valid. In the end, brainstorming really is just one technique, of many techniques, used to generate innovative ideas.

Most of which taste better with sushi.

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