Better Brainstorming and how to achieve it

Last month I wrote about stage 1 of the creative problem solving process (CPS). Today’s post is about the second stage, exploring options to resolve the problem.

The first part of this stage 2 is to open up to all possible approaches to resolving the problem. There are many techniques which you can use to do this, and a lot of them are based upon brainstorming.

Brainstorming is something that is much abused and  I want to share with you ways in which you can improve it.

Brainstorming

Let’s start with your experience. I am certain that you will have experienced that time when someone has suggested that you all brainstorm a topic. It might be, for example, ideas for the next marketing campaign, or ways of handling customer feedback.

So, it goes something like this –‘lets brainstorm’ -then you all get together and throw a few ideas out. One of the ideas gets picked up and a discussion follows. During this process you may not have noticed that one of the more introverted members of the team is very quiet. At the end of the 15 minutes allocated, you have a direction to move on, however is it the best? and have all members of the team felt that they have been heard? I would bet that the answer is no these questions.

How can we improve the brainstorming experience?

Brainstorming requires rules in order that it works at its best.

These are rules based upon those identified by Alex Osborn in the 1940ties and are invaluable as guidelines for any divergent techniques.

    • Defer judgement– that is do not criticize or even comment on ideas as they are proposed. Any attempt at this stage in the Problem-solving process will end the free thinking need to come up with unique ideas. The time for judgement will be in the convergent phases.
    • Quantity breeds quality -The more ideas generated, the more likelihood of a great idea emerging
    • The wilder the better -by allowing brainstorming to continue and encouraging wild ideas to emerge, then there is more possibility of that breakthrough thinking. Wild ideas can often be used as springboard to something else.
    • Combine and improve ideas – build upon what others have already noted. Not all ideas generated need to be original, so use ideas already expressed to generate more ideas.
  • Take a break from the problem –The process needs time and it is important to allow this. Take breaks and change the type of brainstorming throughout the process. Allow up to 30-40 minutes.

Preparation for brainstorming

Before starting, re-state the rules, gain everyone’s agreement and ensure that participants have materials, pens, post-its, flipchart paper of boards to write ideas on. Post-its are a great resource because they can be more easily sorted and clustered once the process has finished.

It helps to do a warm -up first, for example, how many uses can you find for a brick, is a classic warm-up. There are many others and the more amusing ones are the better ones as they allow participants to relax and start to have fun.

Present a clear problem statement. It helps to have this phased as a ‘how to’. For example – ‘how do we improve customer sales in Europe’, or ‘how do we reduce our attrition rate’.

There are a number of varieties of brainstorming and it is useful to vary them in any brainstorming process

Classical brainstorming is a process whereby each person gives an idea in turn and these are noted on a board/flipchart etc. Continue with enough rounds to start generating ideas other than the normal ones that always emerge. The aim is to encourage wilder ideas that can then be used to break out of habitual thinking.

Classical brainstorming favours extraverts, and an alternative approach would be to do silent brainstorming.

In Silent brainstorming allow each person a number of post-its and encourage them to write one idea on each, and post these on the board. There is no discussion of sharing during the process.

Taking a break and random objects

When ideas start to dry up, take a break, encourage participants to go for a short walk, and come back with a random object they have found. When they are back ask them to present this object and then brainstorm how this object is like the problem.

Negative brainstorming /Reversal

This is my favourite! The aim here is to consider ideas that have not already come up, by taking a reversal of the situation. This form of brainstorming creates a lot of laughter once participants get into it and can generate more ideas.

  • Firstly brainstorm ‘How not to solve the problem’ – e.g. how to make sure we reduce sales or increase attrition rates. Post up all the ideas generated.
  • Once the ideas have started to slow down, cluster the ideas into similar ones and then find an idea to reverse this idea. For example, a cluster might include ‘Don’t tell anyone’; ‘Only tell the bosses’. The reverse each cluster to give a single positive idea, g. ‘Brief everyone early on.’

Collating ideas

Finally, when you feel that you have exhausted the brainstorming phase, collate, sort and evaluate the ideas generated in any suitable way, providing the original participants with copies of the results. One easy way of doing this is to put ideas on post-its which can be collected together and sorted into categories. It is very useful to have the team who were doing the brainstorming carry out this process, giving them a sense of ownership.

One of the dangers at this stage is to close down too quickly and discard any of the wilder ideas. The value in opening up and brainstorming is to encourage ideas that may not have been already been considered.

Closing down

The final part of stage 2 is to close down by selecting ideas which can be followed through and developed into an action plan.

I will write more about this in my next blog post.

PS. As I have a concern for the environment, and I love to use post-its I have checked our the sustainability of the post-it.  They are now made from recycled material and can be recycled. Check it out here. 

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.

A picture tells a thousand words

Last month I wrote about the Creative Problem Solving process (CPS) and its importance in tackling complex problems. Picking up from there, I will now review the first stage of the CPS process, which is to gain an understanding of the problem. This stage consists of a divergent followed by a convergent phase as shown in the diagram here.

This is crucial because often the wrong problem is ‘solved’ if there is not  enough time spent on determining the true nature of the problem.

A typical example could be the following:

You have been told that there is a problem with the productivity of a team who also have a high level of absenteeism. The team leader has assumed that the problem is to do with levels of motivation. She has asked for them to be offered an increase in pay as a solution as this team are crucial in the setting up of a new product line.  After a process of fully exploring the problem, it is established that the levels of motivation are low.  However this is considered to be  an effect, not the cause of the problem. The cause is that the team have been recruited with a low level of competencies needed for the current tasks they are performing.

So how do we get to understand the problem fully?

Words can often constrain or limit our thinking, and therefore I strongly believe that in the divergent phase of opening up to understand a problem, images do a better job. They allow the intuition to work, and tap into our tacit knowledge.

My favourite technique for imaging the problem to gain an understanding is the  Rich Picture.

Rich Picture

This is a visual map of all aspects of a problem and their relationship with one another. They can often get very messy as we can see from this example of an attempt to map the problem of climate change.

 

 

However, by having a visual map of the problem it becomes easier to see the whole picture. This helps to start to understand the issues involved, and their connectedness.  It is a little like a visual mind map.

Producing a Rich Picture

There are different ways of facilitating developing a Rich Picture, and these are just a few.

  • As a team effort, at the beginning of the exploration stage of the CPS process, to gain an understanding of the problem. The team needs to combine all perceptions and create a common rich picture.
  • As an individual exercise to allow differing perceptions of the problem to emerge. These individual perceptions are then shared.
  • Pairing up someone who is very familiar with someone with little or no knowledge of the problem can be valuable. The picture can be drawn by the person with experience of the problem. The second person acts as a coach, asking questions to gain more insight and help the picture creation process. This is also a way of using the concept of ‘fresh eye’ which is a great way of checking our our assumptions.

Once an understanding of the problem is agreed, the next phase in the CPS stage 1 process is to determine the problem statement.  It is helpful if this is framed as a ‘how to’ statement.  In the example I gave earlier, the problem may be stated as ‘how do we ensure that we have a team with the right competencies for the task.’  This is beginning to look a lot less messy as a problem. Its always good at the next stage, however,  to check back as to whether this was the best interpretation of the problem.

There are other techniques that can be helpful at this stage in the process. You will find more of these in the book Creativity Cycling.

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.

Why Creative Problem Solving?

 

It was widely reported that in 2016 the World Economic Forum cited creativity as one of the top 3 skills organisations would need by 2020. The top skill which has been consistent in their reporting is critical problem solving.

Critical problem solving is much improved when a dose of creativity is added because many organisations get stuck in loops of thinking.  The saying, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’ is so true.

Creative problem solving is an approach that offers opportunities to develop both critical thinking and creative approaches to problems. The result is that better and different solutions may be identified.

What is Creative Problem Solving (CPS)?

If you are working with an issue that could be described as complex, messy, involves people and emotions then CPS can be very effective.

It is an approach that fully explores the nature of the problem before diving into solutions. When this doesn’t happen, and we leap straight into solutions, we tend to solve the wrong problem because it may be the more obvious one, or even the more easily solvable.

CPS is an open approach to problem solving which works in cycles of divergent and convergent thinking. Opening up to fully explore the problem  before closing down on selecting the problem to explore, before opening again to explore solutions. This is illustrated in the  3 stage approach which is based upon the work of Osborne and Parne. At each stage there is a phase of divergent and convergent thinking with suitable techniques chosen for each phase.

I have listed here  some of the fundamental requirements for this form of problem solving to be effective:

  • CPS requires an open, positive approach. We all make assumptions and build up mind sets based upon these assumptions. It is important in seeing things differently that these assumptions are challenged. Negativity in this process can be harmful and can shut ideas down. ‘Yes and’… is a useful phrase here rather than ‘yes, but‘.
  • CPS works best when more time is spent on the early stages of exploring the problem. What we assume to be the problem may not be the problem or not all of the problem. It may be possible to re-frame the problem and change the nature of the problem, or even see it disappear!
  • CPS works best when people are being playful, and experimenting with new ideas. This, for me means taking it out of the boardroom, away from desks and chairs!
  • CPS works best with a group of people from diverse backgrounds as this can be very helpful in creating the challenging atmosphere that CPS needs.

For more information about this approach and techniques that can be used in the process, do take a look at the book I have co-authored with Dr Tracy Stanley.

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.

Risk and why it is important for Creativity

Risk is a part of life: something we all live with. Some people are more comfortable with risk, others have no choice. However. I propose that for change, development, creativity and innovation, a level of healthy risk is essential.

Risk and Fear

Risk, however, can bring with it feelings of fear. As I write this I remember reading the book by Susan Jeffers, Feel the fear and do it anyway . It had a very positive effect on me at a time in my life when I was about to leave a full-time job in one country for an uncertain freelance career in another. The fear around risk is that we may fail. However, if we never take a risk, we may never live life at our best.

This fear of failure is prevalent in organisations.  Failure is often punished and the consequences of this is a reluctance to start or try anything new or different. This is detrimental to creativity and innovation. As people and as organisations, without taking a risk, we cannot develop and change. To enable creativity and innovation risk is essential.

Risk and a Creative Culture

Goran Ekvall proposed that there are essential elements of a culture needed to support creativity. This quote from his paper –Organizational Conditions and Levels of Creativity highlights the value of risk-taking. ‘As risktaking and anxiety are ingredients of creative acts, culture elements that make risktaking and failure less threatening and dangerous are promoting of creative behavior, whereas in situations where creative initiatives are met with suspicion, defensiveness and aggression, the fear of failure becomes strong and holds creativity back.’

Charles Handy stated that ‘Experiments may fail, thus forgiveness is essential. Instead of failures, unsuccessful experiments must be viewed as part of the learning process–as lessons learned.’

We all have our own boundaries, or constraints when we consider the level of risk that is acceptable. One difference in level of risk acceptability could be due to the prevailing culture. If we can learn from the mistakes we make when taking risks, then we can change and develop. However, it is almost impossible to learn from mistakes in a blame culture in which people feel threatened and feel bad about mistakes. This undermines self-confidence and leads to a culture of low risk taking.

A learning culture, rather than a blame culture requires an active learning habit.  A leader needs to coach their staff so that they can reflect upon their actions, understand them, learn from them and then build upon them to try something different. In this way people can take responsibility for their actions, take risks, and develop their creativity.

Actions to Take

So, what do we need to put in place for risk to be acceptable?

People need to be competent to understand the level of risk that is acceptable and how to ensure that mistakes are made ‘safely’. Experiment in creativity and innovation is essential when developing ideas, provided that the experimentation is done in a safe way, and the culture is supportive. The risk is then a managed risk. If the experimentation fails, learning can result from it.

To summarise

  • Risk is needed to enable creativity and innovation.
  • To remove the fear of risk, a supporting culture needs to be in place.
  • In organisations this means that leaders must –
    • Develop trust, so that open discussions can be had around level of risk in any situation.
    • Train employees to be able to take risks safely
    • If mistakes are made, coaching and open discussion will enable lessons to be learned.
    • Turn these lessons into learning for the whole organisation.

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.

Assumptions and how to challenge them

What are Assumptions?

On a daily basis we all make assumptions. Some are conscious however many of them are unconscious. Those that are unconscious have become habitual ways of thinking.

Assumptions serve a useful purpose

They provide a short cut in our thinking. For example, I assume that health professionals care about my health when I go to see them. I don’t need to think this through, although with any new practitioner I may be wary and check out my assumptions in advance by seeking feedback from others. On the other hand if I am walking down a city street at night and I hear footsteps coming up behind me I assume that I could be in danger and start to react.

What happens when we make assumptions?

We often receive self-confirming feedback. Perhaps not always in the case of the danger at night, thank goodness. However, if we assume that someone is going to act towards us in a positive way then we show this in our attitude towards them and it normally gets reciprocated. Equally if we assume someone will be hostile, our actions show this and this is also often reciprocated.

The Ladder of Inference

I have written previously about assumptions and referred to a framework called a Ladder of Inference first proposed by  Chris Argyris.  Continue reading “Assumptions and how to challenge them”

The Importance of Mindsets

Have you ever wondered why some people always respond in the same way in certain situations? In the workplace, when faced with change, one response often heard is ‘well we have already tried this, and it didn’t work’.

Another is ‘yes that’s a good idea but…

What is a Mindset?

These responses are signs of a mindset. The mindset in this example is that of a having a negative response to the world around us. Although an overworked cliche, it’s the way of seeing the world as a glass half empty rather than a glass half full. Continue reading “The Importance of Mindsets”

Habits that inhibit success for women

It seems that every day I receive an email offering advice on habits. The popularity of neuroscience has spurned an interest in how our brains work and what we can do about it. Habits are such simple things. Developed over time, they become enduring and quite resistant to change. They serve a purpose for us, in that they short-cut the need to think about how we behave in certain situations, and they reap rewards when that purpose is served. Continue reading “Habits that inhibit success for women”

Going with the Flow v. Setting Goals

Going with the FlowThe start of a New Year always brings out a lot of advice on setting goals and making New Year resolutions, so in this post I am going to discuss some of the issues I see with setting goals and compare the rational, logical approach of setting SMART goals to the more intuitive approach of ‘going with the flow’.

On  a personal note I have always been a bit averse to the setting of goals, especially the setting of SMART  goals. However I confess to spending some time at the start of every year reflecting on my future path. As a strong P in MBTI terms, setting actual goals seems to be a constraint too far and I feel much more in tune with the concept of going with the flow! Continue reading “Going with the Flow v. Setting Goals”

Why image based creative tools are better than words

Recently I have facilitated  three creative workshops, 2 which were focused on creative problem solving and one which was a process of personal development. The common denominator in each was not just that they were creative but that I used drawing, images and collage as tools in the process. The results underline the value in using image based work in problem solving and change. Continue reading “Why image based creative tools are better than words”

The Imposter Syndrome and how to overcome it

What is the Imposter Syndrome?

Do you recognize this feeling? You are about to step into a networking meeting or planning a meeting with a potential client and you have this message popping into your head – ‘these people will realize I am not that good’ or ‘I can’t handle this, I am a fraud.’ Then you are not alone. For example, Liz Bingham, managing partner Ernst & Young , once thought to herself: “What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out.” Maya Angelou has been reported as saying “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find [me] out now.”
Continue reading “The Imposter Syndrome and how to overcome it”

Working to our Strengths is Energising

Focussing on improving or eliminating our weaknesses is the most important aspect of personal development, right? No wrong! When we focus on our weaknesses the messages we take on unconsciously is that we are not good at things.

This  tendency to focus on our weaknesses  is not helped by the constant corporate insistence on measurement against targets. I have worked with many leaders giving feedback on a 360 degree process and in the main the first focus is  what are their weaknesses and how does this effect their performance? Continue reading “Working to our Strengths is Energising”