Is brainstorming the best way to generate ideas?

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 By Jack Nevison

What is the most common method teams use to develop new ideas during meetings? That would be brainstorming.

During a good brainstorming session, team members will sit down and discuss their various ideas for solving a particular problem. Ideally, such sessions are led by a competent and fair leader who can keep everyone on task and ensure that all ideas are given their due, without judgment.

It sounds like a good system. But does it work? Some argue that project teams have come to rely too much on brainstorming and are missing opportunities to adopt better strategies.

For example, in a video posted on the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Tony McCaffrey points out that no study has shown that brainstorming sessions are any more effective than simply allowing team members to come up with ideas on their own. He adds that while these meetings are theoretically egalitarian, they present an opportunity for extroverted team members to steer the conversation and give more weight to their own ideas, regardless of their merits.

McCaffrey calls for a different strategy, which he dubs "brainswarming." The basic idea is to map out solutions to problems, and to encourage team members to build on the proposals of their co-workers.

The example he presents in the video is that of a power company that is facing a difficult winter. When water freezes on power lines, the additional weight can cause them to collapse if not treated, resulting in power outages.

The power companies' standard strategy is to send workers up the poles to shake the ice off the lines. This is time consuming, expensive and dangerous.

What is a better way to address the problem? Using brainswarming, team members would create a chart. At the top, they would state the problem: icy power lines. At the bottom, they would list the resources at their disposal, such as ladders and personnel.

Once the chart is set up, the team is free to flesh it out in a variety of ways. As McCaffrey notes, those who are skilled in top-down thinking would start with the problem and divide it into smaller tasks. Meanwhile, others would develop ideas for how resources can best be utilized. Eventually, the team meets at the middle, where they can compare ideas and choose the best ones.

Perhaps it might be feasible to heat the lines so ice doesn't form. Maybe the company can use a helicopter to blow the ice off the lines. In the end, McCaffrey argues, brainswarming will generate more viable ideas than simple brainstorming.

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