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