June 15, 2009
There are bad movies and bad meals. Bad art and bad haircuts. And yes, I’m afraid there are also bad ideas. Where do you think all those bad movies come from?
I was recently invited to participate in a client brainstorming session dedicated to new package concepts. The moderator (not me) began by outlining the “rules” of the session, one of which was that “there are no bad ideas.” Each pearl would be duly recorded, discussed and evaluated. Well, it was not my place to question this edict, and I know that it is a common guideline for brainstorming sessions. But for this and other reasons, the team failed to achieve the goal of the session. Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
My guess is that the “no bad ideas” rule came about to ensure the free flow of creative thinking and to encourage participation by all. But I can’t help thinking that the genuine, proven reason for this practice is that we don’t want to undermine group dynamics and alienate team members in a hurtful critique of their ideas. These are noble intentions, but they exact a high cost in productivity and even quality thinking. Why?
Because the team ends up spending a lot of time in attempt to squeeze something meaningful from each kernel of wisdom. Everyone in the room knows there’s often nothing to salvage, except for bad feelings. Now, I’m not saying that team members are prone to dispensing worthless ideas. Quite the contrary. I think they are inclined toward brilliance…with the right focus. But without that focus, it’s a crapshoot and there’s no reason to expect more good ideas than bad ones. There’s not even a reason to believe we know what a good idea is.
So, how do these less than good ideas come about, and how are they best managed in the moment? Certainly, team members are smart, capable and experienced. But I believe that very often not enough pre-brainstorming preparation is done to frame up the problem, identify what the session is solving for, and define what a good idea really is. Describing this process is not the subject of this little rant, but suffice it to say that everyone must be well versed in how the consumer defines expected performance (“utilities”), and the drivers of value. These should be articulated in clean, clear, simple platforms that team members can be mindful of and refer to throughout the session. I call this approach “Precision Ideation”, a topic for another day.
This approach has two positive impacts: First, it allows team members to edit their ideas before exposing them to the group, saving time and distress. Second, it encourages a powerful focus on solving for the key value drivers in very specific terms, ensuring all ideas are stronger. When time, available resources and/or knowledge does not permit this approach, there is another rather simple method. When I run such sessions, I like to break the team into subgroups for the most thought-intensive activities. I think that the most cogent ideas often come from individuals, and that ideas that emanate from large teams tend to be watered down and meandering. Therefore, small groups are the closest we can get to an environment that can best nurture a great idea in a brainstorming setting. It’s also the most delicate arena for quashing a bad one. That’s because a small group is informal, closely knit and non-confrontational. So, there’s no risk of humiliation. On the flip side, such a supportive, no-risk setting is just as likely to induce brilliance that may never have surfaced in a larger group. Small groups can build and refine their idea set, present them to the larger group, and share all the recognition among them–both positive and negative.
It’s a win-win-win. Ideas are better, forwarded in less time, with no personal recrimination. In the end, acknowledging that there are, in fact, bad ideas out there helps to ensure that there are great ones, too.
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