Tag Archives: Brainstorming

You CAN Teach Innovation


If you look at all of my articles on the topic of innovation, you should begin to see a pattern emerging as to what it takes to work innovatively.  The question remains, can these innovation skills be taught?   As it turns out, Stanford has a pioneering effort – their d-school (institute for design) to do just that.

It is led by David Kelly (co- founder of IDEO – see my related article “Play . . . Seriously?)

The Stanford approach mirrors the way Xavier often suggests its corporate learning clients engage.  We believe that learning does not mainly occur in a classroom.  We can convey concepts there, but the learning occurs when you try to apply them in your own work environment with “real” situations.   The live environment is always a little different from the theoretical framework outlined in a class situation, and so by the process of adapting the theory to fit your often imperfect situation, the learning power is greatly enhanced.  Further, we think that learning under such “live fire” conditions forces us to think much more deeply about the content and what it means.  We think that the act of struggling (a little) with the problem also enhances your understanding – and makes the learning stick.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter CAROLYN T. GEER does wonderful job illustrating this approach.   In the Stanford d-school example –  active learning comes through giving students a real design challenge to struggle with.  Here is one example:

“One group of students, for example, was tasked with designing an incubator for the developing world, where infant mortality is high and expensive incubators are scarce.”   The first step in the process is to immerse the participants in the problem where they gain knowledge, collect data and deepen their understanding of the situation.  So, the “students were dispatched to Nepal to spend time with mothers and doctors, (where) they found that most births take place in rural areas far from hospitals, so flooding hospitals with cheaper incubators would be of no use to most at-risk babies.”

Equipped with this knowledge . . . and a newfound empathy for their subjects, the students reframed the problem. “This was about keeping babies warm, not cheaper incubators.”

The second step in the process is “ideation”, where participants brainstorm potential solutions with one another. They decided that what was needed was a transportable, simple, inexpensive baby-warming device that worked without electricity.

Next comes “prototyping”. The students made sketches and three-dimensional models of potential incubators that they could test, modify, and test again.  This is about trial-and-error. It is iterative.  This imperfect approach is at the heart of what Kelly calls “design thinking”.  By the end of the class they had a finished prototype—a kind of sleeping bag made of special material that could be wrapped around an infant and kept clean and warm with nothing more than boiling water.

From our view – we all need to consider that working on real problems is not only engaging but an impactful way of learning  . . .  unstructured, random and “messy” as it may be.  So here are some final points for you to consider:

People learn by doing. Think of projects as learning opportunities.  Make sure to spend time at the end recapping what was learned, the mistakes made along the way (another useful learning tool), and challenge program attendees to consider how they might approach things differently next time.  If using facilitators, their role should be to help – but as little as possible.  We appreciate much more that which we find out for ourselves.

People learn best by collaborating with others who have radically different points of view, so teams should be made up of people from a variety of disciplines—the more the better!   Your personal technical expertise is not always the crucial factor.

Everyone needs to have an equal voice.  This may require guided facilitation at first – we need to see with our own eyes that often times the person with the best insight is the outsider who we think knows the “least” about the technology or the process of interest.

See also my prior article “Time to Revisit the Art of Brainstorming”.

‎Finally, here is David Kelly talking about the problem of teaching kids how to learn with an eye toward innovation. It contains some interesting ideas to everyone in the field of learning and development.

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Time to Re-visit the Brainstorming Session


Brainstorming is a creativity technique by which a group tries to find a solution for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members. The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in 1953 through the book Applied Imagination  (an oldy but a goody).  While the idea has been around a long time, may people seem to dismiss it as an approach whose time has passed.

Why is this?

It seems to me that we are all way too mesmerized with the idea of the new “silver bullet”, tool or technique that can solve a problem for us.  We covet the idea that we imagine has eluded all smart people throughout time. We want to be the first in our company to introduce the latest and greatest thing.   Well, sometimes old ideas are really good ones.   (For example, you want to read about Strategy? . . . start with the ancient writings of Sun Tzu –  while they are 2500 years old, many people are still pretty impressed by his deep insight.)  Often, we are too quick to dismiss ideas which we try for a time, and then discard when they fail to produce immediate good results.  Perhaps the fault lies more with the fact that we didn’t do our homework, didn’t really understand the concept before we started, or applied the ideas poorly.

Brainstorming is a simple idea.  At the time Osborn released his book, there were multiple studies conducted confirming his postulation that brainstorming is more effective than individuals working alone in generating ideas.

Whether you use Business Process Engineering, Six Sigma, Lean, or other techniques to drive innovation and problem solving in your organization, all these methods involve:

  • Defining a problem
  • Analyzing it  (collecting data to better understand it)
  • Ideation (using the newly gained insights to develop creative ideas about a newer (better) future state)
  • Evaluation  (culling the list of many possibilities in to the few or the one)
  • Execution (making it happen)

In my view, the third step, “IDEATION”, is most crucial in developing innovative ideas to help you r organization.   Ideation (trendy new word) is really about Brainstorming,

Here are some points to consider from a recent article in Inc Magazine called 5 Ways to Kill a Brainstorming Session

According to Josh Linkner, “the invitation ‘let’s brainstorm about that’ typically leads to a gathering in a conference room where the convener asks for ideas then shoots them down as fast as they come up. And brainstorming sessions have come to resemble any other meeting—veering off topic, sucking up time, and causing impatience or boredom.  That’s in part because brainstorming has been compressed and made more efficient—killing its real purpose in the process.”

He offers a prescription: At all costs, you should avoid these five behaviors:

1. Passing judgment or commenting.  Let the ideas flow unfettered by common sense or judgment.   The evaluation stage must come later.

2. Tidying up.  Keep your left-brain in check.  Don’t worry about format, spelling, or punctuation.  Just let the ideas flow – sloppy and uninhibited.  (Clean-up comes later).

3. Thinking ahead.  (Don’t even think about execution or the inherent problems during Brainstorming – there is plenty of time for this later).

4. Worrying.  (Fear is the single biggest blocker of creativity.  We were taught to fear starting in Kindergarten – I think – so tell your people that every idea is a good one and invite others to build on those already up on the board.)

5. Wandering. (When the right brain is unleashed, it does get possible to get lost in the weeds and lose site of the main problem or issue.  Make sure your facilitators are adequately trained to set overly-diverting ideas aside for the time being.

 Want To See Good Brainstorming In Action?

Google is often touted as one of the most innovative companies on the planet.  Here is a clip of a portion of an actual brainstorming session.   Watch it for what you think they did well, and also what you think could have been improved.  (Just click on the picture to the left).

Whether you choose to call it Ideation or Brainstorming – it is a key survival skill in a rapidly changing world.  We need to become better at it, and it may help to revisit the tenets of what makes good creative thinking happen.

Here is another resource you may find helpful – MindTools.com.   Go create.

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