Brainstorm no-brainer

Brainstorming, or at least the form of brainstorming most of us have been taught in facilitation school, not only doesn't work but can't work.

ManagementSpeak: That would have to be a team decision.

Translation: I've already told you how I want it done. Why are you still standing there?

-- Our contributor's desire to remain anonymous was, however, an individual decision.

In the end, technique can't substitute for courage.

Take, for example, brainstorming. By now, most of us in business have learned how to brainstorm properly. We sit at the table, politely waiting our turn while the facilitator asks for our ideas in strict rotation, writing them down verbatim while we all take great care to avoid offering even the slightest appearance of criticism lest it intimidate the flow of creative thought.

Then we get our milk and cookies and take a nap.

Not only can't technique substitute for courage, but it can prevent the very benefits you're trying to achieve. Brainstorming, or at least the form of brainstorming most of us have been taught in facilitation school, not only doesn't work but can't work.

Let's start with the standard practice of presenting ideas in strict rotation. The reason for doing so is to make sure everyone gets a chance -- important among children, ridiculous among supposed adults who by now ought to grasp how to converse in public.

Forcing adults to take turns in a brainstorming session is a superior way to drain the energy out of a group. Jill makes a point that Fred wants to embellish. But Fred has to wait until three other people have presented entirely different ideas, not because they especially wanted to, but because it was their turn. By the time Fred's turn arrives, any remaining shred of continuity has fled the room and the effort Fred must expend to restore it greatly exceeds the value of the embellishment, so Fred doesn't bother.

Nor does Fred bother to do anything else. His mental energy has been used to repress the expression of his idea.

Meanwhile, Ralph has made an off-the-wall suggestion. Rather than offer her critique, Kayla bites her tongue because it isn't time for critiquing right now. That's too bad, because had she been allowed to do so, her comments would have caused a mental lightbulb to turn on in Zack's mind.

So here's a suggestion on how to make brainstorming work: rather than spend a lot of time and energy preventing the flow of ideas so as to cater to the timid, why don't we spend a small fraction of it counselling the timid on the nature of professionalism?

My parents' generation charged pillboxes on Guadalcanal. Compared to that, is asking someone to speak up in a team meeting too much courage to ask for?

Send any comments to Lewis, who heads IS Survivor Training, which organises "Leading High-Performance IT". Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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