We’ve been structuring brainstorm sessions all wrong

Your brainstorm strategy is probably not as effective as it could be.
Your brainstorm strategy is probably not as effective as it could be.
Image: Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP
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The traditional framework for brainstorms involves identifying a problem, listing solutions within a set of parameters, and then choosing the best.

But research on creativity and innovation suggests that truly innovative solutions result not from searching for a “correct answer,” but from the collision of different ideas, perspectives and life experiences.

Rather than encouraging convergent thinking, as traditional brainstorm sessions do, the goal should be to encourage divergent thinking: the practice of finding new ways to look at a problem and generating multiple solutions. In divergent thinking, the emphasis isn’t to agree on the best idea—it’s to get as far away as possible from the most obvious answer.

Here’s how I recommend getting started:

Open up the conversation. To inspire better brainstorming, consider opening up your discussion to more people—and to a different group than you typically work with. Think about it in terms of a network. As you add people to the group, you dramatically increase the number of connections and potential solutions that result from their conversations. Don’t just limit yourself to a team of three or four people who are closest to the problem or considered the key stakeholders. Simply by adding a fifth collaborator, you create countless new connections and opportunities to spark new ideas and divergent thinking.

Management consultants and researchers have proposed “optimum” meeting sizes. There is no hard and fast rule. A group of more than 15 people can get unwieldy but experiment with bringing in more people than you’re accustomed to.

The more diverse this group, the better. The makeup of your group is more important than its size. The more distinct your collaborators, the more divergent (and likely valuable) the results. By bringing together people with different ways of experiencing and thinking about the world, you open up new possibilities for conversation and problem-solving.

At my company, we’ve introduced “collabotrarian” groups dedicated to solving hard problems, like improving diversity and inclusion within venture capital. There is always an open invitation to join, but we also aim for each group to represent the diversity at our company in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, background and thinking style.

The important thing here is being clear on the problem you’re coming together to solve. These are not easy topics—if they were, someone else would have identified the solutions already. When vision and values are clear, differences in perspective and approach are assets that help us come up with the most creative solutions to address these difficult problems.

Take time to understand and reframe the problem. A crucial part of divergent thinking involves reimagining the core problem, question or opportunity space. Take a step back and challenge what you’ve assumed so far. In other words, don’t limit what you’re solving before you even begin generating ideas.

Take the example of diversity and inclusion in venture capital. Before beginning to tackle this problem, we need to explore the problem from a few angles. It could be caused by the lack of role models and mentors, lack of top-of-the-funnel talent, company cultures within VC firms, biased promotion and compensation practices, and so forth. We do individual research to inform our discussion of the problem, then present different ways of framing it. From there we can identify one framework, or “stimulus,” and come up with options for responding.

Prioritize quantity of ideas over quality. After you’ve chosen a given problem or opportunity statement, experiment with creative thinking techniques to generate as many ideas as possible.

As a practice exercise, we ask groups of our employees to design a product using a common object like a coffee filter. We tell them that hey might use one or all of the following techniques to come up with ideas:

  • Work backwards: Come up with a list of different industries that may or may not be related to the item and see how it could work within each context.
  • Deconstruct: Create a list of the properties of the item and come up with an application for each element.
  • Synthesize: Combine different applications and contexts to create a new interpretation of the item.

Don’t rush to build consensus. My teams have learned that if we think we’ve solved the problem in our first meeting, we aren’t remotely close.

So, when you find your group agreeing on an idea or course of action within the first hour or so of discussion, consider whether you are making a decision based on the assumption of limited choices. If so, play the contrarian. Take a page from the improv principle of “yes, and...” Can you come up with one more alternative? If so, you may want to continue the process.

Just get started. Part of divergent thinking is experimentation and iteration. Don’t be afraid to incorporate playfulness into your work and see what happens.

Remember, a study by Land and Jarman found that young children tend to score far higher than adults in divergent thinking skills. As adults, we need to relearn creativity. As organizations and as a society, we need to embrace difference as a source of innovation. It is the best way to thrive in a world defined by complexity and change.

Amy Nauiokas is the founder and president of Anthemis and the founder and chair of Archer Gray..