Your team is stuck. The approach you were using has failed, or it can't possibly be finished in time — if ever. A solution is needed yesterday. So you assemble a small group to generate some new options. The most popular method in such situations is brainstorming, and for many of us, it's the only method we know. As good as it is, there are techniques we can use to make brainstorms even more productive. One method works by exploiting failed ideas.
By examining the ideas we've already tried or rejected, we can generate new ideas we might have missed otherwise. And we can do this within the familiar structure of a brainstorming session.
Here's an example. Suppose we have a blown out oil well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and it's gushing oil all over the ocean. Hey, it could happen. We want to collect all the spilled oil. We've tried burning it, dragging booms behind boats, and skimming it off the surface into supertankers, but nothing has worked.
So we ask, what's fundamentally wrong with these approaches? Actually, it's basic geometry. These methods are all point-oriented — the fire we light burns at a single point, the mouth of the boom loop we drag behind the boats is narrow, as is the prow of the supertanker skimmer. Compared to the surface of the Gulf, these are points, while the oil is spread unevenly over a big part of the ocean surface. To capture material spread over a surface, we need a surface-oriented approach, not a point-oriented approach.
A more effective method might involve tens or hundreds of thousands of small, possibly robotic, skimmers working close enough to mother ships to free them of storage and separation functions. In effect, a fleet of oil-seeking mega-Roombas.
Luckily, the problems you face are probably smaller scale than that. Here are some questions that will generate ideas using what is already known about failures.
- About failure
- Why have the ideas we've tried failed? If we were to try them again, would they fail the same way or would they fail in new ways? What did their failures have in common?
- About new ideas
- How does this new idea Why have the ideas we've tried
failed? If we were to try
them again, would they
fail the same way?differ from others we've tried or rejected? If it doesn't differ by much, how can we make it more novel?
- About costs
- How expensive is exploring this idea? How can we make exploration cheaper? Can we pilot it? How expensive would it be to implement?
- About completeness
- What parts of the problem would this idea resolve? What parts of the problem would remain? Why?
- About effectiveness
- If we implement this idea would it move us forward? What can we change about this idea to make it even more effective?
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
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- Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended
many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could
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- Exasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
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- Allocating Airtime: I
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
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- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.