Why Brainstorming without a Facilitator Usually Fails

“The ideas that come out of most brainstorming sessions are usually superficial, trivial, and not very original. They are rarely useful. The process however, seems to make uncreative people feel that they are making innovative contributions.”  – A. Harvey Block

We have all been there. You are invited to a “brainstorming” meeting with a few other directors to work out a problem. Is it your problem? No. It is a larger company problem. Do they want your input? Probably not, but it would look worse to not include you. Envision the room, a couple of vice presidents, a few directors and post-its. After all, someone looked it up. To brainstorm, you need post-its. What to do with all these post-its? They don’t know because they aren’t trained in creative problem solving and the process that goes along with it. 

Here is the typical scenario. The meeting starts with “How can we…generate more income, recruit more students, reduce our expenses, etc.?” A department vice president who wants fresh ideas poses the question. Unfortunately, half the people in the room work for him or her. If they had fresh ideas, why haven’t they brought them up before? I ask myself, why are they even in the room? 

We all grab our post-its and start writing. I’m usually good for a sound half dozen ideas that I have seen other companies try and another three or four that I would try myself. But, as I look around the room, I know my ideas will be scratched off one-by-one. People claim to want novel ideas but are more apt to find flaws in them with excuses like lack of resources or “we have tried that before and it didn’t work.” Of course, that was 20 years ago so, that great idea is thrown out the window.

Fast-forward through the obligatory two hours allotted for the meeting. The ideas picked are superficial and pedestrian. Result: we have gotten nowhere and I have lost two hours of my time that I can never get back. I leave with my assigned duties. On a good day…no duties. 

For those of you who know the process, what’s missing? Everything! No clarifying of the situation, no generating novel ideas, no diverging, certainly no developing. No one has looked at the issues, no one has formed an action plan, and no one leaves feeling productive. Please…stop the brainstorming. This is all wrong. You are plucking one tool out of a whole process and going from a start point in the middle and pushing people to implement. If you really want your problems solved, hire a skilled facilitator. If you can’t afford one, find someone looking for experience in facilitation. There are people who are trained to do this for a living. Yes, truly there are. Save valuable time and resources by seeking help. You may even be solving the wrong problem. Think of it this way, you can unclog your sink, does it make you a licensed plumber? Exactly! 

Solve the Right Problem

by Roger Firestien with Cher Ravenell

Albert Einstein was once asked, “If some imminent disaster threatened the world and you had one hour in which you knew you could save it, how would you spend your time?”

Einstein replied, «I would spend the first fifty-five minutes identifying the problem and the last five minutes solving it. For the formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.»

Keep this in mind: The wording you use to describe a problem will determine how you will solve that problem. How do you explore the problem space to be sure you find the best definition of your problem? Language. In Creative Problem Solving it is all about how you phrase your problem.

Consider the following two statements:

“We don’t have enough money.”
“It’s too expensive.”

These two statements block your thinking. They send messages to your brain that there isn’t a way to solve the problem.

Now consider the following two questions:

“How might we raise the money?”
“How might we reduce the cost?”

By comparison, these two questions open your mind to look for possible solutions to the problem. They provoke ideas that could solve your problem.

It is all about how you phrase your problem. Yes, it is true; people associate creativity with brainstorming and generating massive amounts of ideas. However, in my 35 years of experience, clarifying your problem is as important or EVEN MORE important than generating all those great ideas. It does absolutely no good to generate ideas for solving the wrong problem.

My suggestion: spend time generating a variety of different ways to define your problem first. The process is the same for clarifying your problem as it is for producing ideas. Just as you generate all those creative ideas for solving a problem using a technique like brainstorming; you can also brainstorm plenty of different ways to define a problem.

Give it a try. Next time you need to solve a tough problem, back up a step. Don’t rush to solve that problem. Instead, generate at least 10 to 15 different ways of restating the problem. Turn your problem into a question. Begin your statements with the phrase, “How to …” or “How might….” Once you have generated a variety of ways to redefine your problem, take a look at the new questions. Only then should you select the best definition of the problem on which to generate ideas.

Trust my 38 years of experience in this business. It is worth the extra time to identify the correct problem. It will pay great dividends when you find that the ideas you generate are right on target.

Think about it—if it was good enough for Einstein, it will definitely work for you.

From ‘Trial and Error’ to ‘Trial and LEARN’

by Roger Firestien with Pamela Szalay and Cher Ravenell

A music director once told me that when he rehearsed, he preferred the musicians to make mistakes confidently. He wanted the mistakes to be big and loud so he would notice them quickly, provide coaching and help the ensemble improve. In the end, the concert audience would only hear the orchestra at their best.

Don’t avoid mistakes on the path to creating a great outcome. There are plenty of “right” mistakes that can be made! The biggest way to make “wrong” mistakes is by trying to avoid making mistakes at all. In fact, avoidance can cause stress, make you worry about failing and can hinder creativity. Like the music director, I recommend that you take on the attitude that mistakes can help you improve and make progress.

Consider the phrase, “trial and error.” “Error” in this context is not a negative word. It is a sign that adjustment is needed. Making many “good” mistakes has driven invention, product development, scientific discovery and the creative process for hundreds of years. Tests are run, results are noted, changes are made, tests are run again and eventually the outcome improves.

Still not ready to embrace mistakes? Look at it another way: a mistake is a result you didn’t anticipate. So think, what can I LEARN from that result? Challenge yourself to change your thinking from “Trail and Error” to “Trial and LEARN.” Think about it: if you were learning to ride a bike and fell down, would you call that a mistake and punish yourself? Or would you get up, learn from the fall, and get moving again? Ups and downs are all just part of the process!

Because it is so important to be open to making mistakes, bring this concept to the forefront during group creative problem solving sessions. Give each participant a mistake quotient. I give them permission to make 30 mistakes, and if they use all 30, I give them 30 more. According to Dave Meir, director of the Center for Accelerated Learning, the greatest block to adult learning is defensiveness. By giving participants a mistake quotient, they relax and enjoy learning instead of avoiding or defending their mistakes.

If you want to bring more creativity into your work and personal life, embrace the mistake quotient. Give yourself permission to make lots of “right” mistakes. Make ‘em big and make ‘em loud. Laugh about them and learn from them. That way, when it’s show time, you are ready to give the audience your best!

“We made too many wrong mistakes” –Yogi Berra


Innovation brings #BigData and Fashion together

by Mónica De Salazar

It was a matter of time until #bigdata went further into people’s lives as in giving something back to them (more than it does today, at least in a visible way).

This new innovative articulation joins data with fashion in a new concept called #CodedCouture, which is supposed to be a digital platform that keeps track on your activities and lifestyle to create a personalized and unique dress, specially designed for you.

In this idea, the innovation may not come from the idea of making this (kind-of) natural match, as pretty much all data science is useful for a number of industries and applications, but on how the implementation is driven. And as you may know, frequently innovation is the implementation of a good idea taken to life.

As most of the times, this kind of breakthroughs begins with one of Creative Problem Solvers favourite questions: How might we…? In this case the creators of Coded Couture may have though: How can we create personalized fashion for mobile data?

Welcome to the future of fashion through #CreativeProblemSolving and Innovation!

The Power of Incubation

by Roger Firestien

The classic view of creativity is that an idea comes to us after we have been working on a problem for a long time, have made  little or no progress and then we step away from the problem and INCUBATE.  After a period of incubation – a time when you are not consciously working on the problem. Eureka. The idea hits you! 

Incubation, by definition means, the process of incubating eggs, cells, bacteria or even a disease. In creative problem solving it means something else entirely. It means you are your most creative when you are not consciously working on your problem. Or maybe you are doing something else that your mind can pay attention to in an almost automatic or routine way. You could be on a run, working out, relaxing in a lounger, but you aren’t concentrating on any one particular task. You might even be in the shower. Then the solution to your problem hits you right in the face. Then you begin to wonder why you didn’t think of it sooner. Chances are, you were over-thinking the problem.

When your brain is at rest or you do not feel psychologically threatened you are at your most creative. Some think it is because when your brain has been uninterrupted, it gives it time to refresh itself. You can spend too much time exploring solutions, focusing on the problem, looking at it from different angles. Your brain becomes overloaded with possibilities, complications, and the twisting and turning actually hinder your creative process.

Over thinking serves as a roadblock to letting your brain work out the problem. This is the time for you to walk away. I mean, literally walk away. Talk a walk, don’t think, but look around you. Empty your mind and put all those problems behind you. Think of it as a mini vacation. Do something else…give it a rest. To some of you this may seem like a time waster and a little bit new age. What it is really going on is that you are recharging your most valuable asset, your brain. It needs time to unjumble itself. After your incubation period you will be surprised that the ideas start to flow almost non-endingly. 

The incubation period can happen at any point in the #creativeproblemsolving process. In a particularly long or complicated Creative Problem Solving session, let everyone break often to process the information. You and your team will come back recharged, often with new ideas or more novel ones. Sometimes it is best to give instructions on how to incubate; which is to not think of the problem but pay attention to something else.  That’s the reason for the walk. Some people have never tried to turn off their brain and the idea may seem strange. But encourage them to try it. They may be surprised by the results. I mean, real workable solutions that provide results… and you can shampoo your hair at the same time.

Is there a better timing for product innovation?

by Monica De Salzar

A lot of companies and organizations have interest in innovation since the markets are changing quickly and new competitors are appearing constantly. There is also a growing interest on disruption to go towards innovation and a larger marketshare.

Now, is there a better answer? As in different topics, there is no right answer because a good thing to do would be to evaluate and treat each case on an individual basis, where different elements might make big differences between brands, companies, similar products, and even products in the same company!

When it comes to timing (this scheme shows the different moments of a market development and how a trend appears, takes off, gets to its highest peak and begins to decline), a company / organization should always be aware of these stages and how to address each one from where they are. In this perspective the need for innovation, as in disruption versus continuous improvement can be different from case to case.

This means that you can be innovative at all times, because to innovate is to implement the creative process in a successful and useful way for the product, its market, and of course the company / organization.

In order to find out what the best product strategy is depending on how mature a market is, benchmarks and market data are always helpful tools along with #CreativeProblemSolving as part of continuous optimization and search for new user insights.

If you or your company are looking forward to innovate, there is never a better time but there can be better ways to do it, and Creativity is one the most valuable tools to do it.

Why do opposites attract… and help each other grow?

by Mónica De Salazar

There is a lot of sayings and ideas on how opposites attract, things like “your perfect match”, “you compliment each other”, and so on. It doesn’t only happen in terms of romantic relationships, it also happens between friends, coworkers and pretty much with all sorts of persons.

This can be explained with the concept of Polarity Management (there’s a book by Barry Johnson), which explains how it works and how to deal in a positive way with this.

It kinda looks like this image. Lets say the two sides (left /right( are two persons or two kinds of persons. They both have a peak (positive results) and a low point (negative results), but at the same time both are cross related and what’s more… they are interdependent.

What does this mean? The downsides of one side are the launching spot for the other one to go further, and viceversa.

The main problem is that in the middle line (let’s imagine an horizontal line dividing the top and bottom parts) that’s the point where we should shift to what the other person (or kind of person) is good at… but usually we don’t.

Attention here: What we worry most about people who are opposite to us is the bottom part of them, meaning the negative results zone. And they worry about the same from us.

But it’s normal, we worry about what we do not know if we can handle. We worry about the dark sides and maybe not being able to respond to them or work things out. Then what can we do? Well, the answer is simple… to give in to it, maybe not as much. We all need to be mindful and self-conscious that when we start to cyclize in a same thought, action, attitude maybe it’s time for the other one to take over the situation and handle it in a different way.

To be able to manage polarities is not just a way to have more harmony among diverse persons and groups, but it also becomes a way to integrate them and make the most of their personality traits and points of view. Eventually, when this integration is successful (it takes time, don’t rush into it) the relationship becomes stronger, more collaborative, people enrich each other and what’s more… diversity leads to innovation more than any other configuration. It becomes some kind of high performance relay race team.

This map shows in a quite clear way how breathing works as a system where polarities are managed the whole time as a cycling process.

When managing polarity it is important to identify the treats, points and everything that is in the up sides of both (or more parts), this way these characteristics can be enhanced, stimulated, built, and more desirable for all parts. This way when there is consciousness of this, all will be more prone to help others (and themselves) by pushing only for the up sides, and relay when the performance or good results start to nosedive. Everyone becomes more collaborative.

Today, challenges (I don’t like to say “problems”) become more and more complex what makes them be less prone to have a single right answer. We have grown in a society where 90% of problems have just one right answer and this is the reason why we are conditioned to always try to respond the first and with the right answer. Therefore, we lose a 3D point of view and make more mistakes in this new complexity of challenges. With Polarity Management we have the opportunity to see challenges from different perspectives, diverge in possible solutions development, prototype solutions, find more sofisticated and tailor-made options… and of course, disrupt + innovate.

What do you think? Shall we try to find diversity and figure out how to manage polarities.

How can Creativity can help to control risks?

By Mónica De Salazar

In the entrepreneurship, startups and new business world, starting new paths can be a real risk since a lot of variables might come out along the development… Will it work? Is this the right market? Will all of the contextual elements help and/or be supportive? Are we sure that this is the right way?

These may be just some of the regular questions to pop up regarding possible risks, and what’s more, these are the kind of doubts that many have and that reasons why there are so many failing projects. Looking at the bright side, failing is great for learning but losing large amounts of money or risking complete businesses is still not so great, even if you learn something.

In the approach of Creative Problem Solving, this perspective is controlled from the very beginning of a project through Clarification. Having a clear vision of what is expected, why it matters for the project and realizing what the challenge is really about is the first step to start solving with new possibilities. It is to be remembered that a well defined challenge opens a world of possibilities to fulfill the vision.

Afterwards, as Ideation stage is happening there is a bigger and better chance to generate options that can later be well evaluated in order to realize how they match the selection criteria.

Last, but certainly not least, during the Implementation phase risk-control is addressed. One of the most common scenarios that set up for failure is exactly the fact that from time to time there are no clear selection criteria and stakeholder analysis to find out what the acceptance of the solution (meaning people and markets) might be. Therefore, to overlook possible risks or not dimensioning them properly can turn into trouble in different levels. Here, to prototype is fundamental in order to find out new data that helps to test solutions and get new data on how they can be optimized before implementing in a complete level.

On the other hand, having clarity of what contextual challenges might be is also an opportunity to creatively solve them as well. From this perspective all the tools of the Creative Problem Solving methodology become very useful and powerful aids that make it possible to both create and innovate in a way that can actually be implemented and gives good results that respond to the main challenges and vision.

Yoel Kluk

Stakeholder Analysis Tool Demonstration