High-Voltage Brainstorming:
Leading Teams to More Brilliant Ideas Faster

Although most of us are very familiar with brainstorming, many overestimate its effectiveness. Serious research indicates that, as commonly practiced, it produces results that tend to overlook some brilliant ideas, and might even include ideas that are counterproductive. We can do so much better.

Brainstorming is probably the method most widely used by groups for generating ideas. Too bad it doesn't work as well as most people believe.

High-Voltage Brainstorming

A presumed self-portrait of Leonardo (left), and his drawing known as Vitruvian Man (right). Whatever he was doing to generate so many brilliant ideas over the course of his lifetime, I want some of that.

It has a long and storied history. First designed in 1940 by Alex Osborn, of advertising and marketing fame, it provides a structured method for creative collaboration. But beginning even before the invention of brainstorming, psychologists had been uncovering significant inherent limitations in group collaboration, especially for knowledge work. And beginning in the early 1990s, they have been finding strong evidence that brainstorming, in particular, has serious weaknesses. The evidence suggests that the risk of brainstorms producing results that omit superior ideas, or which include some truly inferior ideas, is unacceptably high.

And that's when brainstorming is done "right," according to Osborn's design. Unfortunately, because most brainstorm sessions don't follow Osborn's design, they can be even more susceptible to the defects psychologists have uncovered.

What can we do about this?

This program surveys the weaknesses of brainstorming, and proposes approaches that mitigate those weaknesses.

For longer format programs (half-day and full-day) we conduct actual brainstorming sessions to exhibit the risks of brainstorming and to demonstrate methods for mitigating those risks.

This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, or breakout. For the shorter formats, coverage of the material described here is selective.

Learning objectives

This program helps people who solve problems or who want or need to assist others who solve problems. As it turns out, that's just about everyone in the knowledge-oriented workplace. Participants learn:

  • How (and why) organizational leaders influence results even when they don't directly participate in brainstorm sessions
  • The sources of risk that brainstorming might fail to produce broad arrays of high-quality ideas
  • The place of brainstorming in the overall problem-solving process
  • The effects of cultural and language differences
  • The effects of group size
  • How personal preferences affect one's ability to contribute
  • How to mitigate the effects of intragroup and organizational politics
  • How to mitigate and then exploit the effects of cognitive biases
  • How to use personal differences to enhance results
  • Alternatives to conventional brainstorming

Participants learn to appreciate the sources of risk in both conventional "strict" brainstorming, and the informal forms of brainstorming as commonly practiced. Most important, they learn strategies and tactics for generating ideas using a method based on brainstorming, but enhanced so as to manage these risks.

Program structure and content

We learn through presentation, discussion, exercises, simulations, and post-program activities. We can tailor a program for you that addresses your specific challenges, or we can deliver a tried-and-true format that has worked well for other clients. Participants usually favor a mix of presentation, discussion, and focused exercises.

Whether you're a veteran innovator, or a relative newcomer to high-pressure problem solving as a workplace practice, this program is a real eye-opener.

Learning model

When we learn most new skills, we intend to apply them in situations with low emotional content. But knowledge about how people work together is most needed in highly charged situations. That's why we use a learning model that goes beyond presentation and discussion — it includes in the mix simulation, role-play, metaphorical problems, and group processing. This gives participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations. And it's a lot more fun for everybody.

Target audience

Innovators and problem solvers at all levels, including managers of global operations, sponsors of global projects, managers, business analysts, team leads, project managers, and team members.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

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