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Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work!

Your approach to problem solving is fundamentally flawed.


Take a moment to let that sink in. It probably goes against what you think and the chances are, you’d tell me to get stuffed. But bear with me here...

Your approach to problem solving is fundamentally flawed.


Take a moment to let that sink in. It probably goes against what you think and the chances are, you’d tell me to get stuffed. But bear with me here...


Cast your mind back to when you were learning to swim. Water can be terrifying and the thought of having to get in and swim is enough to send shivers down the spine of any youngster (or adult!).


But where did you start?


At the deep end? In the middle? Or in the shallow end where you could stand up?


The answer seems obvious, but it’s an important distinction to make:

  • We start in the shallow end, being able to stand and take in the task ahead. Let’s call this the problem.
  • We then focus on what to do next and follow the instructions of the coach or swim teacher. This our methodology.
  • Finally, we put all our learnings in to practice and push off (probably holding some floats!) to take our first swimming strokes. This is our solution.


Going forwards, we review the instructions again and again, constantly referring to the task ahead and put into practice our learnings.


Over time (or 10,000 hours if you are going to become proficient at it), you will be able to swim without cause for concern and worry. The result, is you can apply this principle of swimming to any context around the world.


At the local swimming baths with your family? Of course. A lovely beach in Hawaii? Definitely! An outdoor pool on a hot summers day? Absolutely.


What we did not do, was jump straight into the deep end without any understanding of how to swim and expect to survive (i.e. find the solution).


But this is exactly what we do in the act of brainstorming!


Brainstorming (I know there are more politically correct terms here, but I’m sticking with this) is a concept which has been used for years, but is fundamentally flawed.


The reason? We try and GUESS the answer.


Think about it...


What did you do the last time someone said, let’s have a brainstorm session around subject X?


Chances are:

  • You wrote the title on a flip chart / whiteboard
  • Put the problem statement or word in the middle & drew a ring around it
  • Then started suggesting solutions to solve that problem


Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.


How can you expect to GUESS the answer? Especially if you can’t define the problem?!


Surely, it would make sense to truly understand the problem before trying to find the solution? I would have thought so, but most don’t.


If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. But here’s one of the world’s most intellectual thinkers to support my arguement:


  • “Given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes understanding the problem and one minute resolving it.” - Albert Einstein


What Einstein was indicating is that without truly understanding the problem, the solution is arbitrary. However, when the problem is properly understood, the solution can be defined and implemented swiftly.


Is the problem really the problem?


Gut-feel and guesswork can waste vast amounts of resources and effort. If this causes a detrimental effect on productivity, would it not make sense to get it right first time?


The Japanese thought so with the Kanban and Kaizen methodologies. They ascertained that with a detailed understanding of what was required, the output (solution) could be streamlined to such an extent, that it would be ‘just in time’.


Brainstorming is guilty of doubling down on errors.


If management ask for a brainstorming session on a particular topic, a great deal of effort will be expended to ensure a ‘productive’ output is garnered.


However, if this problem statement is the result of ‘a feeling’ or gut-feel, how can you be sure it is the real root cause before committing time and money to the solution?


The chances are, you cannot.


Therefore, I would like to see more analysis of the problem before trying to implement the answer.


Imagine this...


USUAL APPROACH: When you have a problem, you try a solution. Great. But that may result in another problem. Bummer. Ok, so let’s try another solution. Super, that worked. It did solve the initial problem, but created a different problem. Argh. Ok, not to worry, let’s try another solution, and so on.


This process can be repeated until you the real root cause is identified. Using a visual aid really helps here.


This stereotypifies the brainstorming process.


Each problem has a solution, but what we think is the real root cause is highly unlikely to be so. That means we spend far to long on the wrong area!


I’m not saying that brainstorming should not be incorporated into business practices, but there needs to be the acceptance, that it will not drive a satisfactory solution.


As a result, a more pragmatic approach would be to say, ‘we have this problem, let’s confirm it is really the problem and trying understand the drivers behind it’. From here, we can gain comfort that we are addressing the most important issue.


Defining the problem is not easy, but it should not be ignored. There is a real skill in being able to uncover hidden issues and identify true drivers, especially when pressure is being exerted by management “because they know best”.


So in an ever increasingly competitive world, why would we not follow Einstein’s wise words and get it right first time?

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