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Book review: Brainsteering — a better approach to breakthrough ideas

This review originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Brainsteering: A Better Approach To Breakthrough Ideas

By Kevin and Shawn Coynes

HarperCollins

At some point this year, you’ll find yourself trapped in a conference room with your comrades in arms.

With relentless enthusiasm, a “creativity moderator” with little or no knowledge of your organization will facilitate a day-long brainstorming session. After a few painful reindeer games and icebreakers to get those creative juices flowing, you’ll be encouraged to think outside the box and told to take comfort in knowing there are no bad ideas.

Most of you will adhere to the social norm of saying nothing in large groups and never making a fool of yourself in front of the senior executives who sign your paycheques and decide who gets promoted and who gets to pursue other exciting opportunities outside the organization. A few of your obnoxious and socially unaware colleagues will seize the day to pitch their pet projects and toss out bizarre ideas pulled from an alternate reality.

Every idea regardless of merit will be duly noted and the walls will soon be covered in flip chart paper. At the end of what will be a very long day, you’ll be asked as a group to walk around the room, review each and every idea and together come up with the top 10 best ideas. Wanting only to make a quick exit and deal with the real work that needs to get done, you’ll throw your votes behind whatever ideas the group thinks are winners.

There’s no real commitment to any of the ideas because everyone knows the ideas will quickly disappear into the ether, never to be heard from and spoken of again.

“Bad brainstorming sessions are actually the norm,” say authors Kevin and Shawn Coyne, brothers and managing directors of the Coyne Partnership. “The most widely utilized group ideation technique in the world usually fails. The problem with traditional brainstorming is that its methodology violates many of the psychological and sociological principles regarding how human beings work best together in a group setting.”

Instead of the usual brainstorming session, try what the Coynes call a brainsteering workshop.

“A great brainsteering workshop begins with careful planning, much more careful planning than most people are used to,” say the Coynes.

That planning starts by knowing exactly what criteria will be used to make decisions on the ideas coming out of the workshop. Are there any absolute constraints? What’s an acceptable idea? How will one idea be chosen over another? Out of the box thinking sounds good in theory. In the box thinking works far better in practice.

Pick the right questions to ask. To help you along, the Coynes at the back of their book list 101 right questions to spur breakthrough ideas. “Right questions are ones that make you take a different perspective on your problem than any you’ve taken before.”

Choose the right people to put in a room. Don’t go by job titles alone. “Pick people who can answer the questions you plan to ask, and who have the mental orientation to translate those answers into ideas,” say the Coynes.

When it comes time for the workshop, lead off by orienting us. Explain why a question-based, inside-the-box approach is the best way to get great ideas.

Now talk about the goals for the day, the criteria for evaluating new ideas, and the constraints that apply to all ideas.

Rather than attempt a group think, assign subgroups of three to five people. Give the groups 45 minutes to come up with ideas to a specific question.

“One of the worst aspects of old-fashioned brainstorming is the tendency for participants to ricochet from one shallow (and poor) idea to the next. The group never takes the time, and never develops the focus, to take a shallow idea and mould it into a better one.”

After 45 minutes, give the groups another question and repeat for four or five times for the rest of the day. Each 45-minute session should yield a couple of great ideas.

Be sure to quarantine what the Coynes call “Idea Crushers”. Big mouths and subject matter experts intentionally or unintentionally do a masterful job of discouraging and killing ideas. Do not let them mix and mingle with innocent bystanders. Instead, give them their own group.

Wrap up the workshop by explaining next steps. Have your senior executives review the questions as soon as possible. “The probability of real action resulting from any ideation declines quickly with time unless firm decisions are made right away,” warn the Coynes.

Green light the best ideas. Park good ideas for when the time is right and the stars align. Do more homework on ideas with promise. And don’t hesitate to put to rest any ideas that don’t measure up or fit the criteria you’ve established up front.

And finally, communicate back to the group on the decisions made for every idea, even the rejects. “Participants desperately want to know that they’ve been heard, that their ideas have at least had their day in court.” Close the loop and folks are more likely to participate next time and continue generating ideas that could prove to be game changers.

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