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Brainstorming is Bad for Business

Ah, the fabulous corporate brainstorming session—you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the business world who hasn’t participated on a regular basis. Many people, we suspect, would bemoan their ubiquity but assume that they’re one of those “hate it but it needs to be done” parts of business. The fact is, though, that brainstorming, while a common corporate activity, is not actually the best way to foster creative thinking and new ideas; nor is it the best way to drive strategic business decisions.

Invented in 1939 by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive at Madison Avenue’s BBDO, the brainstorming concept gained traction in corporate America in the 1950s after a well-published study from Yale University lauded its benefits. By the 1960s, 80 percent of America's largest corporations were using it, and it persisted as the creative standard through the 1980s, finding new adherents in creative thinkers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (both Gates and Jobs came to later reject the process). Osborn himself claimed that brainstorming could improve creative performance by almost 50 percent versus people thinking individually.

On the surface, the brainstorming construct is a good one, based on psychological research that says that simply being in a group can motivate individuals, and the idea that a larger volume of ideas will eventually lead to quality ones. The model also says that brainstorming should be conducted as an informal and unstructured process where people: 1) generate as many ideas as possible; 2) prioritize new or unusual ideas; 3) combine and refine the ideas; and don’t criticize the ideas that come about while brainstorming.

The problem is, brainstorming doesn’t actually work.

Over six decades of research has resulted in very little evidence to support Osborn’s argument—that brainstorming produces more, or better, ideas than the same number of people simply thinking on their own. Part of the problem lies in how brainstorming meetings actually occur—a few of the people in the room do 60 to 75 percent of the talking and introverts tend to not participate at all. More worrisome is the large amount of evidence that shows that brainstorming can in fact be harmful to the creative process and result in a loss of performance overall.

The fact is, the creative process varies widely and, in most cases, is random and individual. This is important because in today's hypercompetitive market, we don't just want a plethora of good ideas, we need the best ideas. Brainstorming is bad at this. When you put a group of people into a room for a brainstorming session, studies show that the group will tend to form a consensus (often unanimous) around whatever was the best (and often the first), or at least the least-awful, idea. The brainstorming process is problematic because it completely discounts things like:

  • People can be uncomfortable voicing creative ideas in a group setting
  • People think at different speeds and not everyone excels at rapid idea generation
  • The ideal solution to the problem could easily come from someone outside the room 
  • Brilliant ideas come to people at random times, often when they are not specifically thinking about a problem
  • Once initial ideas are voiced in a group, the group will naturally tend to further develop and elaborate on ideas in that single vein or category. Psychologists refer to this as "Collaborative Fixation"

And the worst part is that once completed, solutions generated during a brainstorming session are rarely revisited.

So what does brainstorming have to do with your system upgrades?

Let’s face it, many technology plans are crafted in brainstorming sessions. While brainstorming sessions serve to bring key stakeholders together, they unfortunately address existing and known operational criteria, such as age of application, vendor support expiration, budget parameters, and so forth. Because of the limits of the process, brainstorming in this context actually suppresses the opportunity to expand the contours and scope of your decision-making process. As a result, you devise an answer that best matches a predetermined nuts-and-bolts set of criteria rather than challenge the current approach’s ability to  meet your strategic business needs. In short, you allow your infrastructure to dictate your business. For example, imagine the following scenario:

As a CEO, your CIO comes to you and tells you that the payroll system must be upgraded because it is now over six years old, the vendor is no longer developing patches and upgrades in favor of the newer application in their product suite, and there is a dwindling number of third-party options for support of this aging platform.

You initiate a process with your CIO, CFO, HR administrator, and other key stakeholders to evaluate new payroll systems, compare features, and determine which best meets your needs. You review all the data and decide on the best solution. You then negotiate a fair price and hire a third party, or the vendor of the product itself, to assist in the installation.

At the end of this process, you have a modern payroll system that you can expect to meet your needs for years to come, allowing you and your decision-makers to move on to the next piece of technology that "must" be upgraded.

Now, consider an alternate scenario:

Your CIO comes to you and tells you the payroll system needs to be upgraded because it is out of date. You use this opportunity to engage your company stakeholders to examine what is working and what isn’t in their business processes. You learn from their individual investigations that your organization’s back-office processes are antiquated, feature-poor, and costly in terms of both dollars via support and licensing agreements as well as in resources via the man-hours and FTEs it takes to support routine processes.

Armed with this information, you determine that your organization has outgrown the basic accounting needs that drove the initial system selection, and that your requirements have evolved to include more sophisticated enterprise financial and HRIS capabilities. These systems should be focused on business intelligence, drill-down reporting, and real-time dashboard metrics that can be leveraged not just by the C-suite but also by departmental heads and revenue-generators in your business. By taking an integrated approach to these business-critical solutions and on a modern-day technologically current platform, you open the door to a greater range of emerging options in OTS and SaaS solutions that can be integrated as needed for specific industry-standard operations like payroll, AR/AP, recruiting, and benefits. 

With these business-facing goals, the SMEs within your organization can map out an informed integrated business-driven technology approach to address the functional use cases as well as the important technical concerns about security, confidentiality, access, legacy integration, and user experience.

In this scenario, you didn’t sink any resources into a piecemeal upgrade of the "weakest link du jour.” An ill-advised, siloed payroll system project was avoided altogether in favor of a broader strategic goal, one that encompasses a connected sequence of HR/FIN/IT projects, large and small, touching whichever systems are required to meet the end-state objective.

You’ll note that in the second scenario the solution was not based simply on a single person assuming responsibility for creative thinking—we’re not arguing for doing away with collaboration—but on structured fact-finding about both technology and business needs, to arrive at a strategic roadmap in support of the entire organization.

This is how business should dictate your infrastructure. Enterprise applications are expensive and require a lot of labor to properly implement and manage change. One bad decision can result in long-term commitments to dissatisfaction. This often presents cascading downstream impacts as well, as subsequent system decisions will have to include requirements to support (or circumvent) the misguided technology.

It is important to evolve your technology for a purpose, not simply because it is due for an upgrade.

Organizations often settle for poor technology in the name of cost-consciousness or, on the other side of the coin, increase spending on promising new technology that might not be the best answer for the organization’s unique needs. The best solution is one that is driven by business needs, leveraging technology that empowers strategic differentiation. It’s about finding the right questions that ask what you need most to optimize organizational performance, done in a way that fosters creative, out-of-the-box thinking throughout your entire team. As Albert Einstein once said,

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”



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