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Leading Off
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The concept of brainstorming has been around for decades. Originally introduced in the marketing world more than 80 years ago, it has since become a universal collaborative process for businesses everywhere. At its core, brainstorming is a useful way for teams to participate in group idea generation, but the approaches to it have diverged—especially in the wake of new ways of working, including hybrid models. This week, let’s explore ways to improve your brainstorming sessions and the likelihood that they will generate innovative, valuable ideas.
Illustration symbolizing various brainstorming techniques
To boost your brainstorming, ask better questions
Does your team dread brainstorming sessions or find itself hitting creativity roadblocks? The good news is that there are ways to break out of the rut of traditional brainstorming techniques and renew energy, productivity, and even excitement about the process. To start, make sure that you’re asking the right questions—ones that encourage new perspectives on the problem at hand while staying within the parameters of suitable exploration. Try conducting “question bursts,” in which the group brainstorms more questions rather than answers. Coming up with as many open, descriptive questions as possible prevents groupthink, challenges assumptions, and illuminates uncharted paths to potential solutions. Research also shows that creative juices flow better when the left and right hemispheres of the brain collaborate, mixing logic with imagination. To spark communication between the two brain hemispheres, all you need is 30 seconds of bilateral eye movement. This trick can also help with virtual brainstorming—remote meetings can dampen creativity if participants are too focused on their screens, which limits their visual scope and, in turn, their cognitive scope. So let your eyes roam and see what new ideas come to light.
That’s the increase in the number of ideas generated by groups encouraged to criticize one another’s ideas during brainstorming sessions compared with teams that were told to withhold criticism. Furthermore, the ideas that the former group generated were deemed 17 percent more creative by independent observers. Here’s the rub: that only holds true in cooperative contexts. In a competitive context, groups whose participants criticize one another’s ideas generate fewer and less creative ones. Most brainstorming sessions take place in environments with a mixture of these characteristics, yet if facilitators can create a perception of cooperation and mutual interest or benefit during a brainstorming exercise, criticism can be a boon to creativity.
“Using a structured approach to brainstorming removes some of the risks that can thwart honest discussion.”
So say McKinsey experts in one of the latest Bias Busters installments. In brainstorming sessions, people may hold back for a variety of reasons, such as feeling pressured to conform to a group consensus, wanting to avoid conflict or judgment of their ideas, or trying to maintain a perception of authority. People with social anxiety or those with more introverted personalities may also be less inclined to participate actively, finding it difficult to get a word in or needing more time to react to others’ contributions. To create a more inclusive and productive brainstorm, leaders can use anonymous brainstorming and silent voting, or even silent meetings, to capture ideas more comprehensively and fairly. The extra time and effort devoted to overcoming these risk aversions may lead to your team’s best ideas.
Image of Josh Linkner
What’s a good way to think about brainstorming in your company? “If you had an organization and there was an oil well on the property, you’d do everything you could to extract that natural resource and deploy it for your growth,” says Josh Linkner, founder and CEO of five tech companies and author of Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results. “We have the proverbial oil well inside all of our people, and what a shame if we don’t let them use it.” In an Author Talks interview with McKinsey, Linkner discusses how leaders can “democratize creativity and innovation” by developing systemized ways to unlock the dormant idea reservoirs within their organizations. Thinking of new ideas as sparks instead of fully baked or endorsed ideas is one way to reinforce the iterative approach to idea generation during brainstorming. For team members held back by fear—of expressing a bad idea, being judged, or facing retribution—“rolestorming,” or brainstorming in character, can also be a liberating approach.
Image of a comb in front of a tangled web of string
Sometimes constraints are exactly what you need to allow room for your team’s creativity to shine. A great brainstorm requires direction, facts, and a variety of perspectives. Brainstorming sessions that are too unstructured can lead to time wasted on exploring irrelevant ideas or ones based on incorrect assumptions, while constraints in the form of proper framing and a fact base can help focus participants’ attention on what matters. Artificial but tailored constraints can also unlock fresh ideas by challenging your team to overcome new complications. As an emeritus professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business says, the most effective brainstorming happens when people “think inside the box—the right-sided box.”
Lead by brainstorming better.
— Edited by Dana Sand, an editorial production manager in McKinsey’s Cleveland office
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