Brainstorming: are you doing it right?

Pixabay/ Creative Commons

When it comes to creative thinking, few tools are as popular as brainstorming. Developed in the early 1950s by an American adman, the technique has been used indiscriminately by teams seeking to produce fresh ideas. The notion behind it is that groups are more creative than individuals alone: as they go for quantity, crowds would increase the chances of coming up with something really good in between. Gathered in teams, participants are also able to build on the ideas of others and consider solutions they wouldn’t otherwise.

There is only one problem with brainstorming: it is not particularly effective. Study after study has shown that people working alone often have more – and in many cases better – ideas. The issue with brainstorming is that it triggers all kinds of unwelcome group dynamics. For example: extrovert people tend to dominate sessions, forbidding valuable ideas to reach the white board. Moreover, team members seem to converge their performance to a mean, as the most talented adjust downwards to match others. As if these weren’t enough, there is also an “accommodation effect”, the general tendency for people to work less in groups, waiting for others to take charge.

But if the evidence against brainstorming is so compelling, why does it still prevail in meeting rooms? Our experience after leading and observing several workshops is that brainstorming is still an unbeatable mechanism to efficiently combine different areas of expertise around one problem. It is also a powerful bonding experience. Nothing seems to energize teams as much as being creative together.

The secret lies in designing a session that allows individual expression and a productive group interaction. Here are a few suggestions on how to do it. All techniques presented bellow work better in teams with up to six people – more than that and the process becomes messy.

Moderate and time it.

This is a method drawn from design thinking, a mindset used to develop innovative solutions through group work. In design thinking workshops, brainstorming sessions are strictly timed and always moderated by a coach.

First, participants have from three to seven minutes to come up with ideas individually and in silence. They use sticky notes to document thoughts as they come. Teams rarely need extra time to capture their most spontaneous ideas – on the contrary, give people too much time and you will notice them getting bored.    

Once time is up, participants are asked to, one after the other, present their ideas to the team and stick their notes to a white board. These presentations are also timed (we suggest three to five minutes) and they should not be in interrupted. Instead, we highly recommend team members to capture in sticky notes the ideas that might come up during a colleague’s presentation.

When all ideas are finally on the board, it’s time to allow some discussion. Participants are asked to build on the ideas of others and further expand or even combine what is already there. If the coach notices that the opinions of a minority of extroverts are dominating, she/he can suggest new rounds of individual brainstorming for different aspects of the problem in question.

Write it down.

An alternative to traditional brainstorming is called “6-3-5 brainwriting”. In this technique, six participants are positioned in a circle. The process starts when each of them receives a sheet of paper with the problem statement written on top. Individuals have five minutes to come up with three ideas for the challenge in question. The process works better if they list ideas side by side in a single line of the sheet (please see the example below). Once time is up, participants are asked to hand their sheet to the person on her/his right, which will then revise the ideas already written down and come up with new ones. After five rounds, the process is over.


Sketch it.

An effective method from design sprints, developed by Google Ventures, involves digging deeper into ideas first and presenting them to the team later. Each participant is given a sheet of paper to draw her/his idea in detail. This should be a step by step process or a storyboard, in which specific features of the idea are highlighted. Only then are all sketches revealed to other team members, who will use sticky dots to vote on the most promising ones. This technique can be specially effective in teams with tight hierarchies if you keep the sources of sketches anonymous. This way participants would be voting on the best idea – and not on the CEO behind it.

Blog: helping butchers innovate

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© Joanna Nottebrock/ Adalbert-Raps-Stiftung

“If this were a good idea, someone would have done it already”: this is what we heard, over and over again, while trying to develop new business concepts for traditional butcher shops in Germany. As design thinkers and fans of wild ideas, we are used to scepticism – but definitely not to the level we’ve encountered in our project with the butchers.

The reluctance we faced was particularly unsettling, as it challenged the very way we work. You see, design thinking is all about the user. Created in the 1990s, it provides a system for developing innovative solutions to knotty problems by listening to those most affected. In the step by step of the process, we empathize with users, interview them and test with them. So what happens if the user does not seem to want a change?

The will was not there, but the need definitely was. Between 2004 and 2014, more than 4.000 butcher shops were forced to shut down in Germany, according to their local association. The process started in the 1990s, as supermarkets became the favoured spot for meat-shopping. As if a dramatic loss of market share were not enough, the industry as a whole started suffering from a serious image crisis.

First came the mad cow disease, then all scandals associated with the way animals are treated in large scale farming and the growing concern about the climate impact of eating meat. With nearly 10 percent of its population going meatless, Germany has the highest rate of vegetarianism amongst its European neighbours.

These events didn’t exactly reduce meat consumption – which has been relatively stable in the last decade. However, they have made it much harder to find young people interested in becoming butchers. Public scrutiny has also increased regulatory demands. The complexity of requirements is now so overwhelming that butchers are left with little time to explore new business opportunities.

It was in this scenario that the Adalbert Raps Stiftung, a foundation connected to the food industry, approached the School of Design Thinking, in Potsdam, with a task: “Revive the craftsmanship and develop the butchery 2.0”. In charge of the challenge were a group of people with absolutely no experience in the meat industry: two designers, an engineering student, a PhD candidate in the field of education and myself, a journalist.

Empathy. We tried to get as close as possible to the butchers and their world. We interviewed many of them, as well as their clients and non-clients. We visited butcher schools, farms and even worked in a butcher shop for a day. We also found pioneering initiatives on the way, such as the Zotter Edible Zoo in Austria, where visitors pet the animals in the fields and then literally try them at the restaurant.

Based on our research, we developed and suggested a few strategies, such as offering a convenient take-away lunch bag at the butcheries. “This is the kind of stuff consumers want”, we thought. But, as it turns out, this was not the kind of stuff that excites butchers. Those we tested with didn’t put much love into the product — which is why we ended up in the streets of Potsdam, trying to get rid of fatty schnitzel-sandwiches wrapped in cheap plastic bags.

The following ideas we presented faced the same kind of trouble. We simply failed to thrill butchers, to put them on board. And that’s when it hit us: as much as we tried to engage with the butchers, we were still trying to develop something for them. What if, instead of offering a ready-to-implement strategy, we could motivate them to find their own solutions?

This is how the Trueffeljagd (truffle hunt, in German), our inspiration-event, was born. Its first edition took place in Berlin, Germany’s creative capital, in early April 2016. In the course of three days, 30 butchers from across the country connected with the most avant-garde makers of their field. They heard from the founders of startups such as Home Eat Home – a take-away service of meal ingredients backed by Coca-Cola – and Potsdamer Sauenhein, a team of local farmers selling online the meat of free-ranging pigs.

We also visited Kumpel & Keule, a butcher shop that has transparency at its core. Recently established in a 19th Century-market building, the shop is surrounded by glass panels. There, consumers can literally follow every step of the butcher’s work and track meat to its source. Hendrik Haase, one of K&K’s founders, reminded butchers of their responsibility for offering real, tasty food in a world full of artificial options and called them “the new rock stars”.

The Trueffeljagd also offered workshops with design thinking coaches, so that participants would have a chance to reflect about their own businesses in-between inputs. By the end of the event, we had a highly motivated group of butchers, aware of their challenges but also excited about the possibilities ahead. Many mentioned “feeling proud of being butchers again” and having rescued the values that shaped the craftsmanship for centuries. However, the Trueffeljagd was just the first step in the direction of the butchery 2.0 we were assigned to design.

It is now up to each butcher deciding how to move forward, but we are working to help them throughout the journey. A new series of workshops are being designed to address specific needs raised by Trueffeljagd participants. Also, as the new editions of the innovation-event take place, the intention is to build a community of craftsmen and entrepreneurs willing to support each other – an idea none of the butchers objected to so far.

The Trueffeljagd is a project from the Adalbert Raps Stiftung and was initially conceptualized at the School of Design Thinking from the Hasso Plattner Institute. It was further developed and implemented by Melina Costa and Anika Kaiser, co-founders of the innovation consulting firm Coaeva, in partnership with Olga Graf, innovation consultant at J2C – Journey 2 Creation.  To know more about the Trueffeljagd, check out our press coverage at the Tagesspiegel and Zitty Berlin (in German).


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