Thursday, June 22, 2006

Brainstorming and Other Techniques

David Jago put a short but interesting comment on his blog ( drawing from a very interesting article by Jared Sandberg originally published in the Wall Street Journal.

Sandberg points to some of the pitfalls of brainstorming, arguing that the technique is likely to fail unless very well planned. This got me thinking about this type of technique.

When my daughters began primary school, I noted with fascination the way they were introduced to a whole series of process techniques including project management, mind mapping and brain storming previously falling to the management domain. At the time I thought that this was a good thing. Now I am less sure.

Part of the problem lies in the crowding of the school curriculum, reducing time for thought. But part lies in the nature of the techniques themselves.

I use most of these techniques in my professional life. I know from my own experience that the point made by Sandberg on brainstorming apply to them all, that they are likely to fail unless well managed. And this is actually not easy.

Take brainstorming. It seems so easy, get a group together and let a thousand ideas bloom. yet the reality is that real skill is required to make a brain storming session work. And this requires not just planning but also practice.

One difficulty with brainstorming is that people focus on its role in generating new ideas. However, those ideas are almost inevitably set within a frame created by the combined ideas and experience of the group, making it hard to get outside the box. Further, brainstorming is also a technique for creating sometimes enforced consensus among participants.

This point can be illustrated by taking another technique, the delphi process, often used to generate and test ideas among a distributed bigger group, usually experts in the subject.

Initial material is circulated for comment and the generation of ideas, the comments are consolidated and the material revised and then re-circulated. This proceeds until a common view is formed. The process is very good for establishing a majority view, for testing things, not good when it comes to moving outside the box.

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