You have arrived at the web home of Noah Brier. This is mostly an archive of over a decade of blogging and other writing. You can read more about me or get in touch. If you want more recent writing of mine, most of that is at my BrXnd marketing x AI newsletter and Why Is This Interesting?, a daily email for the intellectually omnivorous.

November, 2005

Bringing Brainstorm to the Boardroom

If you asked me what I like most about my job, I'd be quick to answer. That's because since the day I started, brainstorming has been something I've not only enjoyed, but has also made me think a great deal about creativity, business and thinking (amongst others).

You see, brainstorming is just an incredibly different way of approaching a problem when compared to what you encounter on a day-to-day basis. Normally, we think about a problem by starting with the ultimate goal and trying to fill in the pieces that lead up to it. If we wanted to take over the world, we'd start by trying to figure out how to do it. What will we need to take France? Should we start with Canada? And so on and so on.

Brainstorming, however, is about taking a markedly different approach to solving a problem that has plagued megalomaniacs for ages. Instead of starting with trying to answer the big questions, we'd start with what we know and work our way up. We know roughly how many people live in the world, where they live and how they live. We have a basic idea of their languages, cultures and religions.

By first taking inventory of those things, we can start by thinking about just what it means to take over the world. This is where we let the thoughts flow, allowing our mind to work without the barriers that normally hold it back. We can and should say anything, we can worry about judging ideas later. Maybe one person suggests it's about unification, which leads us to a conversation about commonalities in the world's cultures. Eventually, we come up with a plan to preach a story of mutual understanding that celebrates cultural differences instead of trying to make everyone the same. Whether or not this would change the world is not the point, what we can see with this example is that what seemed like a problem about guns and blood turned into an answer of peace and love. By abandoning the traditional notions we came to an unexpected conclusion.

Disregarding the absurdity of the example, my point is that brainstorming can lead to new answers, which to me means innovation. In a recent entry, Kareem Mayan discussed the reasons so many big companies have trouble innovating. Mayan spends time focusing on the fact that many big companies see the negative in new ideas, shooting them down before they have a chance to grow. Or, even worse, creating a corporate culture where employees internally censor, making the decision not to come out with that new idea because their boss will just think it's dumb. It's this kind of culture, one where so many employ the devil's advocate approach that stands in the way of innovation.

It's also just that kind of culture that could learn a whole lot from brainstorming. The same rules employed to make a great brainstorm, can also make a great company, even a great big company.

Walk in Stupid

This is one of the five rules of Wieden + Kennedy, by coming to work without preconceived notions you allow new ideas to flourish. Throughout history some of the most unexpected people have solved some of the most vexing problems. That's because so often specialists who all know the same things come to same conclusion. When you bring in someone new who's willing to try new things, who doesn't know this or that method won't work, sometimes they can imagine a completely different kind of answer.

No Negativity

This is the number one rule of improvisation. Don't shoot down anyone's idea, instead add to it, let it play itself out and then decide whether it's good or not. What you come up with in a brainstorm is a seed of an idea that needs to be cultivated to grow. You'll never know what that tree looks like if you don't plant the seed.

Cultivate Diversity

Mutts are generally healthier than pure-bread dogs because they have a much wider range of genes. Ideas work the same way. The more different the people are who are working on an idea, the more diverse their experiences, the strong the idea can be. When everyone brings something different to the table, you can be sure an idea won't be one-dimensional. Someone will be willing to ask the "stupid" question, someone else willing to make the "stupid" suggestion because they don't know any better. (And because there are no stupid questions or ideas in brainstorms!) But it's those kinds of questions, which may seem obvious to some, that can lead to innovative ideas.

Remember: Big Ideas Grow, They Don't Hatch

I've written about this in the past, but it's important not to forget that big ideas must evolve into being. They don't just happen all of a sudden. Too many people think that they just hatch out of thin air, already fully developed ideas, instead of trying to come up with small ideas and working them, massaging them and cultivating them into big ones. By creating a culture where this is understood, people will be more willing to just throw ideas out there without fear.

Stay Small

Keep a brainstorm small (I've found around eight people or less is best), creates an atmosphere where everyone has a chance to make their voice heard and a group who can move quickly from idea to idea. This, however, is the most difficult rule to translate to a large company. After all, by definition, a big company is no longer small. But that doesn't mean they can't act that way. What makes small companies so successful is their ability to move quickly and encourage ideation to flow from the bottom up, better utilizing a staff of smart and talented people. These ideas can be translated, but it's probably one of the most difficult thing a big company will face. Many look to Google, who allow their employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on their own projects. What this does is create a corporate culture where ideas flow from the bottom-up, just as they do in a small company, as opposed to the top-down. When employees feel involved in the process it's good for everyone: ideas tend to be better than those that come out of the boardroom, employees are happy with their contributions and turnover rates are lower.

Of course, not every company can or should add a 20 percent rule, but they can create other ways to encourage the company to act small. Kareem also talked about Google's Founders' Awards, which awards stock to employees who have deliver lucrative projects. In essence they've created a culture where everyone feels some ownership in the company, and isn't that what really differentiates the big companies from the little ones?

Obviously these rules won't work for everyone company out there, but by employing a bit of brainstorm into the business, innovation seems a whole lot more likely.

November 14, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.