Four steps for rescuing a stalled brainstorm


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We’ve long followed a design thinking methodology for collaborating and solving business problems here at Red Hat. This process facilitates cross-functional collaboration and a meritocratic method of pursuing the best ideas, which has proven, over and over again, to be the best path to success. In short, it’s how we at Red Hat apply the open source way beyond software development.

But the methodology is not without its problems. What I’ve seen is that participants in a design thinking project typically have one overarching question after completing the ideate phase of the project: “Now what?” There is nothing worse for an engaged, enthusiastic project team than investing the time and energy in a productive brainstorming session, only to have the project fizzle out once all of the great ideas are out on the table.

So how can we rescue a stalled brainstorm and ensure that our project teams maintain both their motivation and their ability to shepherd their best ideas into something more tangible?

Author Paddy Miller, “Innovation Architect” and Professor of Managing People in Organizations at the University of Navarra, refers to this dilemma as Brainstorm Island. This metaphor conjures up a remote locale where people escape for rich ideation, sheltered from the people and distractions of the “mainland” (i.e., everyday work and tasks), but a place where they often find themselves stranded.

At last month’s World Innovation Awards in New York City, Miller delivered a presentation titled Escape from Brainstorm Island: Overcoming the real obstacles to innovation in which he outlined four tactics for rescuing the ideas that might otherwise be cast out to sea.

First, he encourages project teams to deal with the disconnect—namely, the disconnect between an organization’s senior management (who often delivers the edict for new and innovative ideas) and the project teams (who are responsible for carrying out that edict). You may have encountered this in your own experience: a productive brainstorming session will often yield some very new—and very radical—ideas, born organically out of the conversation, tone, and energy in the room. However, once removed from the brainstorming session and with all context removed, the idea seems far removed from what project sponsors (or senior executives) might have been expecting. In fact, it might elicit the same reaction as would a cold glass of water thrown in their faces.

SOS! Shipwrecked idea!

How can this common pitfall be avoided? Miller explains that the first step is simply to recognize that it exists. Address it. Discuss all stakeholders’ expectations, and then reset them as needed. Maintain an open dialogue before, during, and after the ideation session.

Next Miller asserts that a core set of innovation skills in the project team members is essential to any project’s success. We see it happen all the time here at Red Hat: a sampling of cross-functional associates are brought together to draw out their best ideas, but they quickly return to their “day jobs,” and any expectations of creative thinking quickly disappear. We expect people to turn their creativity on and off at scheduled times and for short durations. I feel foolish even writing that because it is such a ludicrous expectation, yet it happens all the time.

Those familiar with the design thinking methodology already know that brainstorming, or ideation, is only one component of a much larger process, and to isolate it as the “time where we are creative” is a big mistake. Creative and innovation skills among project team members are critical throughout every phase of the process, from research to ideation to implementation. Without regular development and practice of these skills, the chances of being stranded on Brainstorm Island increase dramatically.

Third, Miller encourages us to look in the past, not the future when trying to find innovative solutions to everyday problems. I’ve seen project teams approach innovation almost as a challenge—who can come up with the newest, hottest, most radical solution to a problem by tapping into trends, fads, and the latest technology available? The problem is that sometimes the best answer is also the simplest—namely, the time-honored, tried-and-true solution that’s been done (to success) hundreds of times before. It may be right under your nose. Avoid being lured in by the shiny new object, and consider what has been proven successful in the past.

Along the same lines is Miller’s final tip, which is don’t find the solution, frame the problem. Again, Shiny New Object Syndrome is an easy trap, and when a brainstorming session is kicked off, project teams are prone to jumping right to developing the best answers to the question at hand. By doing so, however, they are leapfrogging several important steps. Design thinking is, well, designed to help project participants in properly framing the problem via its seven-step construct:

  1. Define
  2. Research
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Choose
  6. Implement
  7. Learn

Experience shows us that many people equate a design thinking project with brainstorming, or ideation. We often coach project teams here at Red Hat to carefully follow the full process and avoid jumping right to the ideation stage. Problem definition and an appropriate level of research are excellent ways to help frame the problem without jumping straight to devising solutions.

We’d love to hear your stories. Have you or your project team found yourselves stranded on Brainstorm Island? How did you escape, and what might you do differently to avoid being shipwrecked in the future?

Source: Escape from Brainstorm Island with Paddy Miller, Chris Dolan (as seen on the Blogging Innovation blog)

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1 Comment

cgrams's picture
Open Source Champion

Hi John-- great article, and great tips!

One of the most powerful ways we escape "brainstorm island" here at New Kind is to not rely on an in-person collaboration session alone. We were seeing that problem often, where you'd gather everyone together, have a great session, and then everyone would just go right back to their day jobs and the good work would be lost.

So we've begun attaching ongoing collaboration projects to the in-person sessions, using any one of many online collaboration tools. We've used Basecamp, Saba, Drupal, but you could also do this on Google+, Facebook, or whatever else made sense for your group.

Once people have met in person and have made connections, you can keep the design thinking process moving online, where everyone can work asynchronously on the project as their own schedule allows.

For us, this is the most effective way of keeping projects moving through the prototyping, choosing, implementing, and learning stages once a successful in-person ideation session is over.