THE NEW ART OF
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BRAINSWARMING “Brainstorming” implies a short burst of energy that quickly dissipates. Innovative organizations work more like brain swarms, constantly moving and attacking problems. We call it brainswarming. WHY SWARM? Asking the right question is key to focusing a brainswarm. THE RIGHT SWARMERS The best ideas come out of teams that feel comfortable with each other – but not too comfortable. BUZZ Don’t just ask swarmers to prepare – get them to pre-think. THE SWARM ROOM Get out of the old conference room and into a more democratic space. HERDING SWARMERS Swarms may look like freewheeling affairs, but effective ones start with structure. THE CRITICAL SWARM Every idea might be welcome, but debating and defending ideas makes them better. SWARM SUCCESS Herd the best ideas together and capture them UN-SWARM TO RE-SWARM Brainswarms don’t end – they just keep moving and solving new problems.
1/ BRAINSWARMING We’ve all gone to those meetings – brainstorming meetings. Need ideas. A new direction. Something. Anything! Get people in a room. Whiteboard. Coffee. Donuts if you’re lucky. No bad ideas. Let ‘em fly. Scribble them down. Keep going! Yes! We have tons! Wonderful! Thanks! Break it up. Take a donut with you. Back to work. Done. Over. Birds chirping. The ideas – gone. Creative thinkers don’t like the word “brainstorming” anymore. It relies on a thunderstorm metaphor – a sudden swirl of energy, noise, electricity and wind that gets everybody’s attention for a moment, then passes by, dissipates, and leaves nothing behind. And that describes a good brainstorming session. “I think in most brainstorms, there’s actually very little brain and hardly any storm,” says Keith Yamashita, principle at SY Partners, a transformation consulting firm. “Brainstorming is really the art of thinking – collaboratively. And thinking takes work. It takes preparation. And it takes a different view.” Digital agency Huge sees it the same way. The old concept of brainstorming seems outdated. “We don’t just use it as a one-time thing – it’s part of a process,” says Michal Pasternak, a Huge partner. “We start with crazy ideas and refine, refine, refine.” Huge, SYP and other creative thinkers see a better way to idea-jam – and a better metaphor. Innovative companies collaborate on ideas in a process that looks more like swarming than storming. Individuals come together to swarm over a problem, but then the swarm doesn’t break up and disappear – it shifts, changes, keeps moving and re-forms, building on what it’s done until it solves one problem and then carries what it knows to the next one. We call it brainswarming.
2/ WHY SWARM? Design firm IDEO is famous for coming up with brilliantly creative products. And it all starts with the right objective. When a group at IDEO came together to swarm a problem that had to do with bicycle cup holders, it didn’t start by defining a solution like “develop a spill-proof coffee cup lid.” It started with an objective: “Help bike commuters to drink coffee without spilling it or burning their tongues.” That opened up the brainswarm to a wider range of ideas – and clearly defined what success would look like. Multi-industry mogul Richard Branson does the same. His mantra: Define the problem, not the solution. “When the conversation strays,” he says, “remind everyone about the problem you’re trying to solve, and keep working toward that objective.” So the first rule of brainswarming is to make sure the swarm has a clearly defined goal – one that leaves as much room for creativity as possible while injecting discipline and direction into the session.
3/ THE RIGHT SWARMERS A study of the teams that produced Broadway musicals from 1945 to 1989 yielded an interesting insight: the relationships among collaborators were a reliable predictor of a show’s success. If the collaborators were relatively unfamiliar with each other, they were not likely to create a hit show. But if the bulk of the team had connections and a fluency with each other, the show’s probability of success shot up. It turns out that when people know each other, they interact efficiently and feel safe enough to let ideas fly. To a point. The study found that if the Broadway teams stayed together too long, they got stale and their shows flopped. The best mix turned out to be a familiar team spiced up with newcomers. They had to be connected, but not too deeply connected. Pasternak sees this at Huge. She has a solution: “We inject new team members to get the naivete back up again.” At Goodby Silverstein and Partners, the agency goes a step further -- injecting entirely new disciplines into the mix. “We’re hiring people who bring something new and different to the table -- stand-up comedians, rappers,” says Mike Crain, who leads the agency’s Doritos account. Put those newcomers in with a connected team, and they’ll spark a refreshing energy in the thinking. The lesson for brainswarming: Cultivate a tight-knit core swarm and get them into a room with fresh recruits who will say something to shake up the familiar.
THE RIGHT SWARMERS
4/ BUZZ Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, argues that research proves that brainstorming groups think of fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone, and later pool their ideas. So once you clearly define the problem and identify the people who will swarm it, don’t just pull everyone into a room and press the start button. Give them the problem before the brainswarm and ask them to come up with solutions that they’ll then bring to the group. Creative leaders find different ways to get the pre-swarm juices flowing. At Goodby Silverstein and Partners, Crain says he might map out a consumer’s routine when buying a bag of chips, and ask swarmers to come in with ideas about how to alter those routines in a client’s favor. At SY Partners, pre-swarm field trips are in order. “I always find that before you get anyone in a room to think together, they have to experience something that challenges their beliefs – shakes them up,” Yamashita says. “I almost always send people out on a seeing trip of some sort to look at the problem from a new angle.” Getting buzz going before a swarm has another benefit, research shows. If no one comes prepared with ideas, the first good idea can become an “anchor” – pulling all the thinking in that direction. If everyone comes in with their own strong ideas they want to present, it’s anchors away.
5/ THE SWARM ROOM The worst place to jam on new ideas might just be the place where most companies today send people to jam on new ideas: the traditional conference room. Here you have a table, chairs, and a whiteboard if you’re lucky – or, if you’re not, one of those pads on an easel that always falls over. It’s uninspiring, undemocratic (he who controls the pen and pad controls the meeting), and isolating. It almost ensures that “brainstorming” sessions are anomalous one-offs, not part of the flow of a place. PayPal’s offices in Boston are set up to eliminate the distinctions between where people work on their own and where people think together. “We designed the office to be very collaborative in nature,” says PayPal’s David Chang. Desks roll and are moved around. Instead of having one or two conference rooms, PayPal has 40 spread everywhere, plus another ten lounges for gathering – swarming – and knocking around ideas. IdeaPaint covers almost every wall so people can spontaneously brainswarm wherever they happen to be. Multiple writing and sketching surfaces are key. If everyone in the session has a pen and access to a writing surface, barriers to sharing ideas fall away. Collaboration expert Dan Roam preaches a gospel of drawing pictures to solve problems – the more pictures from more people, the better. Keith Yamashita wants each of his brainswarmers to feel like a kid with a crayon in a house of white walls. “If I could have my ideal room for a thinking session, it would be one where you could write on every surface of the room — the walls, the tables, the floor,” he says. “I’m not kidding. Writing down the ideas, diagramming them, sketching them—that’s the secret. When we commit the ideas in those forms, they become legitimate ideas.”
THE SWARM ROOM
6/ HERDING SWARMERS “When most people do brainstorming, they run all over the place and think outside the box,” says Ralph Keeney, emeritus professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “I think they should think inside the box.” Here’s the problem: Too many idea sessions start with a rule that there are no rules. Think of anything, the group is told – think outrageously, no boundaries. And then everyone sits there stumped – if you have infinite choices, what do you choose? Or, ideas are so all over the place, they never focus enough to solve any problem. “If you add some process, then brains in the room feel like they know where they’re going,” says Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. “A little structure is actually an enabler. It’s the creative power of constraint.” Roam preaches his own brand of structure. He suggests starting brainswarms by drawing a series of rough pictures, starting with a portrait of who’s involved with the problem or goal, then a chart of how much (money or another measurement) is involved, and on to items like a timeline and flow chart. You end up with, essentially, a visual equation describing the situation. By that point, ideas are flowing but staying focused. Others have their own ways of guiding the swarm. Yamashita uses time limits: “Tell the team they have 30 minutes to generate three viable ideas,” he says. Or simply lay out parameters that give the group direction. But mostly, remember that a swarm isn’t a swarm if it’s spread all over. But put it in a box – then you’ve really got a swarm.
7/ THE CRITICAL SWARM A study of brainstorming sessions by the University of California at Berkeley discovered something counterintuitive. “While the instruction ‘do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy,” the study’s author, Charlan Nemeth, told The New Yorker. “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” So, basically, stop being so warm and fuzzy. The concept of “every idea is a good one” is nice for kindergarten, but less so for business. However, this requires finesse. Because the last thing you want in the swarm is fear. A swarm works together for a common purpose, supporting each other and building on colleagues’ actions. A swarm can’t be a competition to see who has the best idea. One company, in fact, actually instituted bonuses for people who generated the best ideas in brainstorms. Dysfunction immediately set in because no one wanted to support anyone else’s idea. The number of good ideas generated fell through the floor. Brainswarms need both an excess of ideas and constructive debate about those ideas. Bad ideas can lead to good debates that then lead to better ideas. So the best brainswarmers tell their colleagues: Don’t be afraid to put any idea on the table, but also don’t be afraid to be critical of ideas that are on the table – or to support and build on anyone’s idea. “We think of it as building consensus around an idea as opposed to brainstorming,” says Chang at PayPal. Always keep the good of the swarm in mind. No individual wins. The swarm wins if all the individuals work together.
THE CRITICAL SWARM
8/ SWARM SUCCESS You’ve done everything right: pulled the right mix of people into the right kind of room; stirred up pre-swarm buzz; set up parameters; and launched healthy group debate that’s starting to winnow a truckload of ideas to get to the strongest ones. Now it’s time to funnel down to the very best ideas and capture them. Yamashita, not surprisingly, gives everybody a pen at this point. “I encourage people to connect ideas, show the relationships of the ideas, draw lines between them, create a map of the ideas,” he says. “It’s by looking at the relationship that you figure out what a real idea is.” As the swarm coalesces around a smaller number of ideas, the democracy of the swarm has to take a back seat. “We tend to be flat until the end, when someone has to drive,” says Huge’s Pasternak. “Someone has to make the decision about what ideas to go after.” There are lots of ways to make sure the ideas don’t get lost. Assign someone to synthesize and write up the swarm’s best ideas. Assuming you’ve done this in a well-equipped swarm room, the ideas will be all over the walls. Take photos. Better yet, dump the images into Evernote, which can later search handwritten words just as if they were typed text. If at all possible, leave the drawings and scribbles on the wall, so swarmers can come back to them, talk about the ideas, touch them up, draw new connections. If you have the power, says Richard Branson, say yes to some good ideas that come out of brainswarms -- it energizes the swarm to keep going. “Sure, you might make an occasional mistake, but if you take a risk, you’re more likely to find success,” he says. And then, importantly -- don’t stop. That’s the vital difference between brainswarms and brainstorms. Brainswarms never end.
9/ UN-SWARM TO RE-SWARM Go back to those Broadway teams. The best teams didn’t simply do one show and then atomize. They swarmed one show, disengaged, perhaps added a couple of new members, then re-swarmed over the next show, bringing with them and applying what they learned – both about the problem and about each other. This is how brainswarming works. Objectives don’t go away the minute a meeting breaks up with a few good ideas to offer. A good swarm will continue attacking the problem, naturally, spontaneously breaking apart to work on their own and re-forming to work together. When one objective is met, keep a good swarm together and send it after the next one. Such swarming has a crucial benefit: speed. “Things are happening faster,” says Crain at Goodby Silverstein. “We can’t necessarily wait and sit in a room for two hours and talk. We need it faster.” Swarms don’t wait for someone to call a Thursday at 10 a.m. thinking session. Good swarms become pre-loaded efficient problem-solving machines. Pull them into a room, give them a target, and let the brainswarm begin. If the conditions are right, it will never end, and the innovative ideas will keep coming.
UN-SWARM TO RE-SWARM
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