Innovation Comes From Creative Mind. Everyone Has One.
Most likely, you never heard of Alex. F. Osborne. Very likely, you heard or even used some of the products for which he guided the advertising as the O in the BBD&O ad agency, such as General Electric, Dupont, Chrysler, and other Fortune 100 companies.
Osborne’s contribution to the corporate world extends far beyond selling products and reaches directly into your life – assuming you occasionally search Google, or Microsoft’s Windows 10 is driving your computer.
Osborne has never been called the father of innovation, and rightfully so, because we think of innovations in terms of tangible products. But in many ways, Osborne should be seriously in the running for the title “Father of the technique that lead to an extraordinary number of innovations and continues to do so.”
Osborne was concerned – actually alarmed is a better word – that his creatives were below par in producing creative ideas, which of course are what drive ad agency engines. He gave this considerable thought, chased after different solutions, and in the early 1950s developed the technique that should put him in the running as FTLENICS (I’m allowed only so much space in this column).
His technique – brainstorming. (Actually, it started out as “Using the Brain to Storm Problems.”)
The concept – use a group, rather than an individual, to generate ideas.
Sounds obvious, right? A group of people will generate more ideas than an individual. Except that Osborne was not looking for just any idea. He was not looking for logical, sensible ideas. He was looking for the boldest, most outrageous ideas. And no, Osborne was not a mad ad man. He was a smart, astute businessman capable of leading a major ad agency, and leading the advertising for Fortune 100 companies. There was reason behind his quest for the outrageous.
Osborne understood that every idea, even outlandish, laughable ideas, could be the seed from which breakthrough ideas could flower. The more outlandish, the more the imagination is stretched, presenting new ideas that can be combined, or built on – which is how Eureka ideas are developed. He developed brainstorming as a technique to bring forth those ideas and do so in an environment that nurtures the seed until breakthrough ideas broke through.
Osborne was not seeking perfection. He was not looking for the right idea, not even the bright idea. He was looking for ideas that sprang from divergent thinking. Ideas that veered off the beaten path, which led down unfamiliar crooked byways, that often led nowhere. He was the Johnny Appleseed of ideas. Brainstorming was designed to toss out an endless flow of ideas, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, no matter how seemingly ludicrous.
His divergent thinking method planted the seed that took hold, flourished, and grafted into the processes of leading Silicon Valley design firms like IDEO, the curriculum leading design schools like Stanford’s d. school, MIT, and similar cutting-edge entities in the educational, industrial and corporate worlds.
Osborne understood that the final accepted idea is not born. It is shaped and formed through the perspectives, the questions, the challenges of different minds. It is a collaborative process that requires minds with opposing mindsets.
As he stated in his brainstorming principles:
- “The most outrageous solutions, the wildest they can conceive, on the assumption that these may often contain kernels of truth that can be extracted during the analysis session.
- “As many ideas as can be thought of are voiced, in the belief that out of quantity will come quality.”
- “Criticismof ideas generated should be put “on hold,” focus on extending or adding to ideas, reserving criticism for a later “critical stage” of the process. By suspending judgment, participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas.
- “In the final stage, focus on combining ideas, building on ideas, extending ideas that have been voiced in the session.”
Osborne also understood the obvious: Bringing a group of people together to throw out ideas is a recipe for absolute chaos. Brainstorming sessions have a structure.
- A chosen facilitator who guides the flow of ideas assures that no individual dominates the session, and that all participants have the opportunity to express their ideas.
- A specific problem or area of interest which is the focus of the session.
- Prior to the session, each participant is provided with all relevant information that is available, familiarizing the individual with the focus of the session so the creative thinking can already begin.
- Participants should include those directly involved with the problem, and those not directly involved who provide fresh, unbiased outsiders’ perspectives.
The purpose of brainstorming is an endless flow of ideas. The premise behind brainstorming is an understanding of how the mind works.
- Individuals are limited in their perspective by their previous knowledge, experiences, and biases. Hearing different perspectives, even radically different, enables them to see the issue in a fresh light, which opens avenues to further creative thinking and ideas.
- The first 10–20 ideas are based on that individual’s limited perspective. But in fact, the human mind is a storehouse of experiences and memories. Scientists have calculated that the supercomputer used to get the Rover to Mars has only 18% of the storage capacity of the human mind.
By drilling deep, the individual is accessing the experiences and memories that are the basis of all creative thinking. The mind searches through the storage to uncover connections or to form connections between disparate experiences and memories, leading to fresh ideas that are seeds for ideas that break the rules, push the envelope – that Eureka idea.
- A rush to judgment is a barrier to the flow of ideas, inhibits those less certain and articulate, and most damaging, crushes the potential of an idea before it has been thoroughly reviewed.
During the session, there are no “no, but” comments, only “yes, but.” Ideas are explored in a positive fashion to build on them. Participants seek to bring out the potential of an idea. By doing so, they are bringing fresh perspectives, which, in turn, generate further creative insights. The river of ideas flow throughout the brainstorming session.
In the last column, I discussed how to bring Google’s culture of innovation into your company. Google is keen on brainstorming.
However, a culture of innovation requires a top-down management commitment. It mandates that you take employee suggestions seriously, whether regarding a problem or solution, whether furnished through a suggestion box, or mentioned by the water-cooler. You create the atmosphere, the environment. Innovation in your company, with the accompanying creative solutions, takes hold when employees believe that you believe in the value of innovation.
Google’s commitment is apparent in how brainstorming flourishes in their world-wide offices.
Through their extensive experience, they have developed their own caveats:
- 5–10 is the ideal number of participants.
- The leader or facilitator should prepare the session agenda.
- The leader assures high involvement. No participant should be allowed to dominate the session. Everyone has equal voice.
- Write headlines. Expressing the idea in six words brings sharp focus and clarity, cutting away the fat.
- Illustrate the idea as much as possible in whatever fashion possible. Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words.
Another company that heavily utilizes brainstorming is IDEO, one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious and influential design firms. They designed for Apple. As Tom Kelly, GM of IDEO, stated, “Brainstorming is the best place to jumpstart innovation and is a religion which we practice every day.”
Brainstorming goes hand in hand with the Japanese “Every obstacle presents an opportunity.” You can approach finding a quick solution to an obstacle in your company with the objective of removing that obstacle. Or you can approach it as an opportunity to explore the broadest range of solutions, and by doing so develop a breakthrough solution that changes the parameters, the playing field, and gives you that competitive edge.
B&Bs were a part of the American scene since the Plymouth Rock. To pay their rent, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia rented sleeping bag space in their apartment. The problem was the income was limited by their space. Their solution – encourage others to rent their living space. The innovation – Airbnb.
Is brainstorming perfect? No, usage over the years revealed a number of potential flaws depending on the group of participants:
- Unbalanced conversation: Extroverted personalities and quick thinkers dominate the conversation, leaving no time for other teammates to contribute.
- The Group Think effect: Participants converge on the first few ideas that are brought up in a brainstorm, which stifles new ideas and prevents the team from moving on.
The solution: brainwriting
In this technique, the unleashing of ideas is non-verbal; discussion is reserved for the very end. Everyone has about six minutes to write down their top three ideas that relate to the topic of the brainstorm. Then everyone passes their ideas to the person on their right, who will then build off the ideas, adding their thoughts in brief. After another few minutes, everyone will pass the piece of paper again, until it makes it all the way around the table. Once the ideas have made it around the circle, the group discusses them and decides which ideas are best to pursue.
Brainwriting assures that everyone shares their ideas, and that all ideas are exposed before Group Think can come into play.
Brainstorming does not require award-winning agency creatives or Stanford graduates. Every employee of yours knows his area of operation, sees the problem firsthand, and very likely has solutions. Not surface solutions, but deeply insightful, innovative solutions that can be given air through brainstorming.
Over the past three quarters of a century, brainstorming has proven to be a game-changer.
To benefit, you do not have to be a Fortune 100 high-tech company.
Just committed to creating a culture of innovation.
Interested in developing your creative thinking skills to grow your business? Maybe even disrupt your business category? Subscribe to my “Unleash Your Creative Thinking” free email course. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Creative Thinking” as the subject.
Chanina Katz has over two decades experience in major Madison Ave. ad agencies developing highly successful strategies and award-winning campaigns for such blue-chip clients as Colgate, RJ Reynolds, Hilton, Home Depot, General Mills, KFC and many others in a wide variety of package goods and services businesses. He provides marketing services for a range of businesses, from start-ups to major corporations. He lectures on marketing and creativity. He can be reached at Bullseyemarketing1@gmail.com.