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.

Your GPS already does Creative Problem Solving… and you?

by Mónica De Salazar

Today, a lot of people uses GPS apps on their mobile phones to get to places. It’s easy to follow, it usually shows you routes and how traffic is in every option, tells you where to turn and even if you lose track of a certain turn, it re-routes and gives you a new option.

The logic within a navigation system has certain similarities with the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) and its stages, and it will help us to explain part of what’s inside the Creativity Certificate. Pretty much you can become a GPS System but for all sorts of challenges.

First things first; you need to introduce the address or place where you wish to go. It is very difficult (not to say impossible) to use a GPS system if you don’t know where you wish to go. Being creative on this, if you don’t know the exact place where you’re going, at least you might need to introduce a reference so it can take you there, and from that point you might need to find the way yourself. Being say this, you always need a direction first. In CPS, this is the Clarification stage. We are assuming that when you turn on your GPS you have already gone through the Evaluation of the Situation stage, and you know what is happening in your life or day so that you decided to jump into your car.

The thing about Clarification is that you have already envisioned the place where you wish to go, but you might be overlooking possible traffic issues as blocks, deviations and more, which can become challenges at the moment you’re in route.

Once the address is set the GPS system moves into its version of the Ideation stage, that in this case is looking at the map and finding possibilities of routes to follow. The system certainly does not brainstorm on options, but it does connect the available streets and highways to see how they match best. Then it gives you straightforward routes that might be slow, gives you routes through tolls that you will need to pay, options of longer routes but with less traffic.

Then comes the Implementation stage, were the route is marked in a color and you have a general plan on how to get from point A to point B, as well as a Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA). This is similar to what happens when we are planning for a prototype, since we have a general vision of how it might function if all the conditions are helpful but of course, you can never have a perfect plan because things and new challenges might appear on the way. After introducing the address or direction you wish to go, getting the best available route and seeing the panoramic view of it, you’re ready to roll. Happens with GPS and with challenges to be addressed through a CPS process; getting the route and where the turns are doesn’t mean you are already there. This is the reason why Implementation is so important, along with Stakeholder Analysis, flexibility to re-route and find new options if needed, but never forgetting what the vision is, what the desired destination is…

It is curious how a system can have a similar logical configuration to how CPS works. Of course there are big differences from this to how a complete CPS process works, what the results can be and the approach, but a navigation system is an interesting example of how were are close to this logic process everyday and the good results it gives us most of the time. Now, how would you like to be more of a GPS System when a challenge appears for your company, team, organization, family or for yourself… always being able to envision where you want to go, finding always viable options to go there nd being able to make plans with the exact twists and turns to get you there even if something comes up along the way? This is what CPS is all about, getting you where you wish to be and even further.