A brief process for more enlightened brainstorming

There’s a better way.
There’s a better way.
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
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Everybody wants to generate breakthrough ideas. Few people know how to do it. Conventional practice is to pick a vague challenge (“We need innovative ideas!”) and then randomly brainstorm in the hopes of stumbling onto the next Spotify or Slack.

This methodology is a lot of fun. But in our experience helping companies find ways to innovate, it often leads to ideas that don’t actually solve problems, or solutions that don’t make economic sense.

The real challenge for most of us is figuring out the right problems to solve—and, equally importantly, what problems not to work on. And in order to understand that, it’s often necessary to spend a lot of time on research as a part of the brainstorming process.

This theory was confirmed by our recent study published in Strategic Management Journal. We used big data to analyze patents for inventions in nanotechnology. We found only 1% of the patents had breakthrough levels of both novelty and economic value —meaning that they embodied new ideas and were particularly useful for subsequent innovative efforts. (Patents that are frequently cited as “prior art” by subsequent patents tend to have higher financial value for the organizations that produce them.)

A popular view is that this kind of innovation takes combinations of diverse knowledge to create breakthroughs. The assumption is that innovators can get locked into one way of thinking, and innovation therefore requires a broad search for information to break them out. Our study suggests that this can be a double-edged sword. Combining diverse knowledge can shatter the myopia of expertise, but does not provide the in-depth knowledge needed to generate novel ideas.

Instead, we found that there are different creative processes required for generating the two key aspects of innovation: novelty and economic value. Novel ideas required people to build in-depth knowledge and expertise about a given subject area. And ideas with economic value resulted from bringing together a lot of different, diverse perspectives.

Our work in design thinking—a methodology for producing innovative ideas that involves all participants who have a stake in the outcome–suggests that both of these creative processes are essential for what we call “enlightened brainstorming.” We encourage people to engage in two distinct modes of thinking: divergent thinking, which involves creating choices, and convergent thinking, which involves making choices.

The Enlightened Brainstorming Process

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In-depth research and expertise are essential in all phases of the innovation process. During the divergent thinking mode, we want different users and experts together in a room, bouncing around possibilities. During the convergent thinking mode, we also need expertise to go deep in developing and testing the ideas that come out of the brainstorm.

Diverse groups are important because they help us draw from a variety of perspectives to hone in on solutions that are likely to make a meaningful impact. Otherwise, the default is often to opt for the idea that’s most popular—or the one that’s preferred by the highest-paid person in the room.

Companies often don’t want to hear that innovation will require a serious investment in time and resources. “Can’t we just skip to the last step?” they might ask. Or “Let’s just hold an off-site and brainstorm ideas.”

It’s understandable that we tend to be biased toward efficiency and speed. But a short-term focus ultimately benefits no one. Much as we hate to say it, there are no shortcuts to breakthroughs.