I have taken part in a large number of brainstorming sessions with a variety of techniques. In general I am usually disappointed with the quality of the solutions that are generated. As a facilitator I will exit the brainstorm with a fist full of ideas and then spend time dissecting them and more often than not the ideas buckle under scrutiny one by one.
This is not a reflection of inept engineers and designers, it is the shortcoming of the technique many companies use. The tendency is often to pull together a group of people with minimal preparation and start generating ideas in a confrontation free environment. Even when preparation work is done, as per Osborn’s original edict, the tendency is to spend most of the time on raw ideation and very little on idea refinement, idea cross coupling and critical evaluation. The “no bad idea” paradigm has received scrutiny for decades; however, the uninhibited critique of ideas is confrontational and is relatively rare except in very tightly knit teams where there is a high degree of respect and trust. In many cases teams come together briefly to work on a project and then dissolve, the confrontation that gives rise to ideas that will stand up to scrutiny is hard to foster. In the world of product development, quantity of ideas generated in a brainstorm is rarely of significant value. This is because the problems are usually highly constrained, complex and multi-disciplinary. What I want out of a brainstorm is a very few ideas that have stood up under interrogation by experts in all applicable disciplines.
Towards this end I have conceptualized and tested a brainstorming technique that I have called Seed Torrent Brainstorming. For a detailed background and introduction to the technique please follow this link for the extended text. Although neither a full description of the idea, nor supporting background, is appropriate for this blog, a very short explanation of the idea can be conveyed.
The first step is for the brainstorm facilitator to prepare a one page problem description and a few sketches of the obvious solutions. This primer is sent to a large group of individuals in the company with a diverse background of skills. The recipients have 12 minutes or 0.2 hours (in a consultancy time is of the essence) to digest the information and sketch one or two concept ideas. This can be done at any time over the course of a day or two, depending on how much lead time the facilitator has allowed prior to the brainstorm. These ideas are then collected and amalgamated by the facilitator and are brought to a longer brainstorm session with fewer attendees. These ideas from the large torrent group are then used as seed material by the smaller specialty brainstorm team. The team briefly conducts ideation that may be inspired by the seed ideas but mostly spends time cross linking, building, refining ideas and conducting critical review of the merits and pitfalls of these hybridizations. The general idea being that the ideas coming out of the session are vetted and scrutinized more critically than in a brainstorm where raw ideation is valued more highly. The fact that the session starts with seed ideas from a very large and diverse group can be useful to introduce the obscure and unorthodox, often clever ideas come from areas that an expert team may not consider. Additionally, the fact that the ideas generally come at least to some extent from external sources or they can be intentionally linked to external sources means that the team members are far more comfortable in critiquing the ideas as ownership is diluted and feelings need not be hurt.
StarFish Medical has practiced this technique on several occasions during the medical device development process and has found the quality of the ideas generated to be superior to those where the brainstorm focuses on ideation vs. critical evaluation.