In 1998, I was leading a brainstorming session for Sears in one of its major foreign markets. We were trying to come up with a "millennium idea" —you know, a big PR, community-serving concept that would be executed within the millennium context.
We had 35 people from the Sears marketing team and a few dozen assorted dummies assembled for brainstorming. (Maybe I need to explain this a bit more. We held the session in a very cool environment for brainstorming, a retail display warehouse with, among other things, over a hundred mannequins. Sorry if I misled you.)
We arranged our 35 people in groups of 5 in various corners of a large room. One of our ground rules was that if more than one group came up with an idea, it was immediately thrown out.
People often use duplication as validation of brilliance. "Great minds think alike." But the truth is that great minds have different ideas. The great unwashed masses are the ones who think alike.
If the Sears millennium team found duplication with only 35 people, weren't the chances high that the idea would be developed by their competition?
We see too many people in the room. We see too few people in the room. We see processes that are billed as creative thinking sessions that look more like Nazi Youth Camps. We see methods that are better suited to tarring and feathering new ideas than discovering and nurturing them. We see dominant managers organizing groups under the guise of brainstorming, meetings that are nothing more than manipulation sessions to get the whole group to agree with the leader's preconceptions.
Brainstorming is a process with a lot of faces, and I must tell you that most of them are as ugly as a maggot under a microscope.
To someone like me, a person who eats, breathes, sings, and yodels creative thinking, going into these types of environments is like Mother Teresa walking into a bordello on News Year's Eve. Then again, these companies have called us for our expertise. So maybe they know they are way off base in this process. (I can only imagine how messed up some of the companies who don't call in the creative medics might be.)
"Okay, smarty brainstorming guru," you ask, "if we're doing it all wrong, then why don't you share some of your wisdom and tell us how it is done?" (See, I know so much about the human mind, I know exactly what you are thinking.)
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