Should I Brainstorm for Christmas gifts?

By December 17, 2011 All Posts, News No Comments

But the real question is, what do you mean by Brainstorm?

Brainstorming has become the master brand for coming up with ideas.  However, not every kleenex is a Kleenex, and not every brainstorm is a Brainstorm.  Before we crucify or deify Brainstorming, let’s take a look at a few important aspects and some of the ways it can go wrong.

Brainstorming basics:

  1. Brainstorming (with a capital ‘B’) is a formal and organized activity.
  2. There are rules (“guidelines”).
  3. It is a collaborative tool for coming up with a large quantity of ideas in the process of solving a challenging problem. (Note the word “ideas”, not “solutions.”)
  4. It is a divergent part of the process, meaning that one of the goals is a large quantity of varied ideas.
  5. It involves people.  People are a variable.

The main issue I have with people poo-poo-ing brainstorming is that they are generally criticizing something I would not consider Brainstorming.  When you have a challenging problem to solve, doing a proper Brainstorm is an obvious and project-saving step.  However, it requires set up and proper execution.  While it is totally reasonable to say “let’s take 5 minutes and brainstorm a place to go to lunch,” it must be noted this is not Brainstorming (with a capital “B”).  And when said “brainstorm” fails to generate tons of awesome ideas and solve the problem, please don’t claim that the world of Brainstorming is ineffective.

The main reasons Brainstorming is ineffective:

  1. You are referring to brainstorming, not Brainstorming (see end of article for a links)
  2. You didn’t prepare well
  3. You didn’t have the right people
  4. You defined the problem poorly and/or were not focused enough
  5. Your expectations are off (ie, you expect answers, not ideas)Brainstorming is a powerful tool.  You should read the instruction manual before operating heavy machinery!

The tool analogy:

  1. Choose the right tool for the right job.  Brainstorming is not always appropriate!  If you use a hammer when you need a screwdriver, you can’t claim the hammer doesn’t work.
  2. Keep it sharp.  Brainstorming requires practice.  Do it often.
  3. Prepare the surface/work area before starting.  Adopt the 6P rule: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.  Know the problem.  Know the goals.  Communicate the problem.  Communicate the goals.  (Spontaneous brainstorms are comparable to not having architectural plans when building a house.)
  4. Do you even know how to use this tool?!?!?.  Using the correct end of the hammer is important to maintain effectiveness.  It’s not the tool’s fault.  Brainstorming requires competent people who understand the tool they are using. Technique matters.  Some people are better than others at Brainstorming, and practice can make you better.
Brainstorming really is an invaluable part of the process for solving challenging process.  It is important to acknowledge that there is more than one way to do a brainstorm.   However, it is equally important to acknowledge that some ways are more effective than others.  The folks at the Stanford are experts at brainstorming, and they have provided a good cheat sheet and more information on (one way) to do brainstorming: Brainstorm RulesFacilitating a Brainstorm
So should you brainstorm for Christmas gifts?  Yes, but with a capital ‘B’.

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