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February 7, 2012

Brainstorming: Squashing Individual Brilliance?

An interesting essay in the New York Times a few weeks ago got me thinking about the perils of “groupthink”.  Nothing really new there, but the piece went on to propose that breakthrough ideas typically grow out of individual effort rather than teamwork.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve believed that since I got into this business 20 odd years ago.

I’ve been invited to participate in countless brainstorming and ideation sessions over the years.  It’s become clear to me that without proper leadership and structure, these team events can dilute, stifle and snuff out the best ideas in the name of collaboration and buy-in.  I call it mind-mashing.  It’s horrible to watch.  But it’s also extremely easy and rewarding to defeat.

I believe that the most focused, on-strategy ideas spring from individual thinking.  And such an individual can be anyone, from anywhere in the organization, without regard for function, experience or reputation for creativity.  I’ve seen some of the best ideas spring from the minds of those considered the least likely to contribute in that way.  And I’ve also seen some of the best ideas never see the light of day because of that perceptual handicap.

So why are organizations–and innovation functions in particular–so enamored with teams and mind-mashing ideation sessions?  Here are a few reasons:

  • Management believes that all relevant functions must have a hand in surfacing and nurturing ideas, no matter how preliminary.  Without input from those with varied backgrounds and experience, an idea has no shot at becoming real, no matter how powerful.  As the result, a great idea can be scrapped or diluted early on in the name of action-ability and organization fit.
  • There’s a need to obtain buy-in across the organization to generate excitement, motivate involvement and secure resources.  This seems quite valid to me, but I’d argue that a great idea should spend more time in a protected incubator before pushed out into the world to fend for itself.
  • In some organizations, idea generation and development quickly become team-owned because of a culture that values credit sharing and/or diffusion of responsibility.  Organizations innately seek to manage risk, and this is a good thing.  But I wonder if spreading risk and reward around has as its cost the suppression of some game-changing ideas?
  • There’s the notion that the inclusion of more minds represents a more reliable and valid sample of available brainpower.  If eight team members concur on an idea, it’s likely a safer and better bet than if one person enlisted the help of others to realize a more daring one.   I’m not convinced.

Why does the solo mind work better, at least in the preliminary idea generation phase?  To combine my thinking with that of the New York Times:

  • The solo mind is often free of distractions.  Team meetings can be intimidating, frustrating and stressful for solo idea generators.  Solo work often has more uninterrupted time to focus, which allows ideas to be pushed farther.
  • A single, passionate point of view keeps an idea on track.  It allows for more dedicated problem-solving and is better able to keep an objective in sight.
  • There’s often less concern for group politics and processes that can disrupt creative thinking.
  • The suppressed instinct to ensure that the idea solves for every constraint and addresses every need.  The solo mind is free to optimize a potential solution rather than maximize it.

We see Mind-Mashing in all kinds of innovation-related activities.  Focus groups are a huge offender.  They are the original and best “groupthink” delivery system.  Also, a thoughtful strategic direction can suffer when it must represent all things to all people.  But unstructured ideation sessions can be the ultimate group grope, where individual thinking doesn’t stand a chance if not properly nurtured throughout the process.  Then, concept evaluation efforts can be the best way to kill that one transformational idea when it is misunderstood and ditched too early.

I know.  It all looks bleak.  But let me say that there are easy ways out of the mind-mash mosh-pit.  A little tweak in how you interact with consumers.  A fiddle with the way you structure ideation sessions.  A twist to how you develop and screen concepts.  The process changes are pretty intuitive and simple, if you recognize the opportunity.  Feel free to ask me for more details.  The greater challenge is meeting resistance of an organization that wants to collectively glom on to every initiative from day one.  It will be the solo thinker who figures out how to dodge that one, too.

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