Following up on my recent recommendation of Grant McCracken's Chief Culture Officer (as well as my appreciation for Grant's acknowledgment of the strategic importance of empathy), I wanted to highlight one more thought-provoking concept in the book: Brainstorming as Intellectual Improv. Grant describes a brainstorming session convened by Denise Fonseca, who is currently director of global business and consumer insights for Coca-Cola:
[pp 135-137] Fonseca has assembled people with various kinds of expertise. Most were from the academic world. They do not play well with others. They object, cavil, quibble, carp and niggle.
Fonseca gave us fair warning. She said something like,
There is one rule in this room: No no's. You may not contradict, dispute, or disagree with the things you hear here. I am going to enforce the "no no's" rule with my M&M's. When I hear you contradict, dispute or disagree, I am going to pelt you with an M&M. Or several M&M's, depending on the severity of your offense.
I listened with interest. And I tried my best. But years of academic training got the better of me. I caviled, quibbled and disputed several times. The first M&M struck me in the lapel. The second bounced off the notes in front of me. The last one was a direct hit, caroming off my noggin. (Nice shot, Fonseca!)
The "no no's" rule comes as a surprise to a lot of people. It seems like a recipe for chaos. Isn't caviling the very method of quality control? Actually, it isn't always. Too often it's the way academics jam the airwaves against new ideas. But the point of this undertaking is not quality control, it's idea generation. When what we are looking for is a sheer profusion of possibilities, no no's is the path to riches.
Good brainstorming is an act of intellectual improv. A group of people agree to break the normal rules and reservations of interaction and "go for it." Their objective: to go places they could not get on their own...
But how are we to separate the good from the bad ideas? The good news is that, in good groups, bad ideas go away by themselves. No one picks them up. No one remains their champion...
One of the conditions of brainstorming is a "nonproprietary" approach from the participants. The moment an idea escapes our lips, it belongs to the group... We have to learn to say goodbye. We get credit in general for our performance...but otherwise ideas end up belonging to everyone. This is sometimes the hardest lesson for academics to learn...
Once we learn to say no to no, we have to learn to say yes to yes... Brainstorming works best when we commit heart and soul. It works best when we engage in a kind of improv. The first positive rule of brainstorming is just what it is in improv: Take up every pretext and run with it.
Further Thoughts on Group Process
Personally, I like methods that allow...people a flexibility to work at different paces and [use] different ways of interacting. I tend not to use the word "brainstorming" as for me it's too suggestive of a relentless fast-pace. With more time for reflection, people sometimes generate ideas that are somewhere in the fascinating gaps between one point of view and another. And I like rules-of-thumb more than absolute instructions for how we might all choose to play together.
Ultimately I think it's most important to be mindful of the overall group dynamic. For example, do we tend to "object, cavil, quibble, carp and niggle," like Grant's academics? Then a formal set of brainstorming parameters, such as a hard-and-fast "No No's" rule, might give ideas time to breathe before they're suffocated.
It's also worth considering where the group is in the decision-making process. Do we need to begin eliminating options in order to reach closure? Then the time for brainstorming is over, and we need to transition into an entirely different process--but until we reach that point, perhaps we need a set of agreements that will help us stay in idea-generation mode. Sam Kaner's framework for decision-making is a simple but very useful tool in this regard:
Finally, I'm reminded of Grant's elements of reinvention, an extraordinarily thoughtful list of the dynamics that characterize change. Put all these concepts together, and they comprise a great set of tools for stimulating idea generation, reinvention, and change while also helping a group ultimately move forward and reach closure.