Brainstorming your way to being agile

By Brian Lucas

This one is dedicated to Shakia, who would have inspired Byron beyond her physical beauty with the sublime nature of her self-sacrifice.

“The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines.  And in a period of rapid change such as the present…the decline will be fast.” — Peter F. Drucker

Being agile is not just about how much you can accelerate the pace of business.  It’s about increasing effectiveness with less work.  Being agile is being innovative!  Peter Drucker[1] rightly points out that constant innovation is necessary to survive in a time of change.  We live in an era of constant, unending, rapid change as Alvin Toffler[2] predicted.  So innovation has to be an integral part of the enterprise if the organization is going to survive.

In the past, business cycles were fairly predictable in sequence, if not in duration.  A business cycle is a sequence of economic activity in an economy that normally follows phases of establishment, growth, decline, recession and recovery.  Previously, these phases generally mirrored national or even a world-wide economic health.  Cycles repeat over time like seasons in a year.  Historically, a business cycle averaged 6 years, but could range anywhere from 2 to 12 years in duration[3].

Today, things are not quite the same.  A number of smaller businesses actually thrived during the recession by being creative in developing new revenue streams and innovating[4].  What has made this so dramatic is that this is an economic environment which rapidly exposes weaknesses[5], even in the largest institutions.  This allows the more fundamental strengths of an innovative enterprise to expand rapidly into the voids left when less agile members decline as Drucker predicted.  We have seen innovation not only create specific business opportunities for individual companies, but also substantial new sectors[6].

How do you spur innovation?  It doesn’t require huge funds.  Steve Jobs said, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”  I agree.  One great way is through brainstorming.

Before getting into brainstorming let’s look at two factors that prevent it from happening:

  1. Micromanagers: This is the number one inhibitor in being an agile enterprise today.  Micromanagers will absolutely kill your company.  You need to change their ways or change them.
  2. Hierarchic Chain of Command: Look at this as the absolute opposite of empowerment.  You are not going to get the sweeping and continuous innovation if people aren’t empowered.  Don’t kid yourself that the simple little “suggestion box” programs that corporations implement as a part of good PR has any resemblance to real empowerment.

Alright, now that we have dealt with those two beasts, let’s define brainstorming.  Brainstorming is a group or individual creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its member(s).  The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book, Applied Imagination.

Osborn defined two principles that contributed to what he called “ideative efficacy”:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Reach for quantity

By defer judgment, he meant that you should never say an idea is stupid or crazy or won’t work when you are brainstorming.  So withhold your criticism.  After all M.C. Escher[7] said, “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”  So encourage the unusual, the wild and the unexpected.

Reach for quantity means that you need to get more ideas out on the table don’t stop at a hand full.  The more ideas you throw out there, the more creative you become.  Ideas spark other ideas and innovation follows.  Combine these ideas and improve them.  Everybody wins when the enterprise innovates and is profitable.

Osborn also had two rules for successful brainstorming:

  1. Address a specific question
  2. Work in groups of 12 or less

While there is merit in asking an open-ended question how can we be better, brainstorming is generally more effective and produces results quicker when it addresses a specific question.  How can we get our product to market before our competition?

Working in groups of 12 or less is a real necessity unless you happen to be blessed with an organization without politics.  A land where complete mutual respect reigns and there are no personal grudges.  If you answered yes to that one, look again and see who you are fooling.

There are some inhibitors to look out for in brainstorming:

Free riding: Individuals may feel that their ideas are less valuable when combined with the ideas of the group at large.  Diehl and Stroebe[8] demonstrated that even when individuals worked alone, they produced fewer ideas if told that their output would be judged in a group with others than if judged individually.  Empirical experimentation has shown however, that free riding has only a minimally negative effect on productivity loss, and type of session (i.e., real vs. nominal group) contributed much more.

Evaluation apprehension:  This was determined to occur only in instances of personal evaluation.  If the assumption of collective assessment were in place, real-time judgment of ideas, ostensibly an induction of evaluation apprehension, did not produce significant differences.

Blocking: The reality that only one person may gainfully voice his or her ideas in a group at any given time.  Diehl and Stroebe examined the question of whether this effect could reduce idea-generation.  Ideas suppressed long enough to listen to another group-member’s ideas might be forgotten.  Their research confirmed this hypothesis.

Social matching effect:  This effect is the tendency for individuals in a group to match the level of productivity by others in the group.  When one or more members feel that they are disproportionally contributing added value to the brainstorming process than others, they displayed a tendency to reduce their contributions to the group’s lower standards.

Illusion of group productivity:  Members often overestimate their productivity.  Groups rarely have objective standards that determine how well they are performing.  Individual members can only guess at the group’s effectiveness.  Members working on collective tasks are likely to think that their group is more productive than others.  Further, individual members overestimate their own contributions to the group.

Tips for holding a successful brainstorming session:

    • Find a comfortable meeting environment
    • Appoint one person to record the ideas
    • Use an warm-up exercise or ice-breaker
    • Clearly define the problem you want solved
    • Give people plenty of time on their own at the start
    • Ask everyone to give their ideas
    • Encourage people to develop other people’s ideas
    • Encourage an enthusiastic, uncritical attitude
    • Ensure that no one criticizes or evaluates ideas
    • Let people have fun brainstorming
    • Ensure that no train of thought is followed for too long
    • In a long session, take plenty of breaks

Osborn’s methods are not the only ones for brainstorming.  Here are 25 other techniques you can try:

  1. Time Travel: How would you deal with this if you were in a different time
  2. Teleportation: What if you were facing this problem in a different place
  3. Attribute change: What if you were a different gender, age, race, intellect
  4. Rolestorming: What if you were someone else, your manager, partner, enemy
  5. Iconic Figures: What if you were Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Edison, Gates
  6. Superpowers: What if you suddenly have superpowers, Superman, Batman
  7. Gap Filling: What is the gap between your current Point A and your end Point B
  8. Group Ideation: Get a group of people and start ideating together
  9. Mind Map: Work out ideas in hierarchical tree and cluster format
  10. Medici Effect: Ideas in seemingly unrelated topics/fields intersect
  11. SWOT Analysis: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
  12. Brain Writing: Write ideas on sheets of paper and then swap sheets
  13. Trigger Method: Identify ideas discard until one remaining
  14. Variable Brainstorming: identify end outcome variable list all possibilities
  15. Niche: Mix and match variables in discretely finite ways
  16. Challenger: List all assumptions and challenge them
  17. Escape Thinking: Look at assumptions then flip that assumption around
  18. Reverse Thinking: Do the opposite of what everyone will do
  19. Counteraction Busting: What counteracting forces are you facing
  20. Resource Availability: What if you can ask for whatever you want and have it happen
  21. Drivers Analysis: What are the forces that help drive you forward and act against you
  22. Exaggeration: Exaggerate your goal and see how you will deal with it now
  23. Get Random Input: Get a random stimuli and try to see how you can fit it into your situation
  24. Write a list of 101 ideas: Write a laundry list of at least 101 ideas to deal with your situation
  25. Meditation: Focus on your key question such as ‘How can I solve XX problem?

Hopefully, you will agree that brainstorming is a very powerful technique to solve the difficult problems of innovation and that you will commit to a serious innovation encouragement program.  When creative ideas flow freely in the enterprise, innovation is healthy and constant.  There are so many different brainstorming techniques you are sure to find one that works with your mix of people.  If not brainstorm and create your own.  And remember, till next time – keep agile!

About Brian Lucas

In his life, Brian Lucas has been a coach, farm worker, forester, health care advocate, life guard, general contractor, mechanic, mixologist, musician/singer (in a rock group), salesman and teacher. Brian has worked as a project manager, technical marketer, methodologist, manager, software architect, systems designer, data modeler, business analyst, systems programmer, software developer and creative writer. These efforts include over a hundred hi-tech initiatives in almost every business and industrial sector as well as government and military projects. Among them, he designed and developed a quality assurance system for the first transatlantic fiber optic communications network, a manufacturing system for a large computer manufacture’s seven manufacturing centers, a data mining system for steel production, an instrumentation system for cable systems, defined requirements for government’s information systems and designed and developed human performance management systems. Brian has educated and mentored many over the years, designing programs to discover and develop talent. He has also lectured extensively to a variety of audiences. Brian is currently devoting as much time as possible to the innovation of business agility and human capital management along with the next generation of agile software development. As an amateur theoretical physicist he is working on joining general relativity and quantum mechanics through a multidimensional time corollary on string theory and negating the uncertainty principle with Louis de Broglie’s wave/particle hypothesis. He is also an avid blue-water sailor and wilderness backpacker. He enjoys billiards, boxing, chess, cooking, famous battle reenactments and war gaming, fencing, flying, gardening, horseback riding, martial arts (particularly Ninjutsu), philosophy and psychology, playing musical instruments (7 so far), poker, rapid-fire target shooting, reading (he tries to read a new book every night), painting with oils, scuba diving, skiing and recently writing novels.
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17 Responses to Brainstorming your way to being agile

  1. Jack says:

    Good overview of the brainstorming technique you recommended that we employ prior to our release planning sessions. It has definitely helped us get new ideas into the mix. I am surprised that you did not mention using this in that way in this post. Is there a reason I am missing. As always you get me to think! Thank you my friend! – Jack

  2. Sally says:

    Hi Brian: Thanks for listening to us all and posting more often! I have never used brainstorming as a technique for organizational restructuring. Actually, I have never heard of it being done, before. Any thoughts as to its application in this area. -Sally

  3. Rick-K says:

    Brian – can you explain a bit more about what Jack referred to as brainstorming before a release?

  4. Alfred Richter, Phd says:

    Brian, with each article I read, my respect for you grows considerably. You have a rare capacity of blending theory and logic with experience and practicality. You do it in a simple and often humorous fashion that makes your writing entertaining.The creativity that is necessary for brainstorming is born in an environment of openness and collegiate spirit. While I agree 100% with your post, seldom is this environment engendered in the corporate world of hierarchy and political intrigue. That is most unfortunate, for the solutions to many of the enterprise problems are only an arm’s reach away and can often be implemented with internal resources. However, the management attitude and tactics of the average US corporation make this an impossible abyss for employees with fresh ideas to cross.

  5. Ahmad Hassan CSM, PMP says:

    By its very nature, Agile is a natural brainstorming activity. I am ashamed to admit that this had not occurred to me before. Thank you for point this out! I am struck with the amount of perception that you possess about the underlying patterns and corollaries in agile. I would be most appreciative of any examples you could offer on the use of brainstorming as a pre-release activity.

  6. Kendra says:

    Hi Brian: I noticed that while you are posting more often again, that you are not answering as many comments. You always answered all the many comments you received in the past with the best answers I’ve ever read. I was just wondering why you stopped…

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Hi Kendra: I hope you are enjoying this beautify day, at least it is beautiful in southeastern Pennsylvania. I have not abandoned my readers comments and I promise I will catch up. A number of events, both work related and personal as well as a friend of mine who suffered a serious health incident this summer have conspired to overwhelm me. I have struggled to try to deal with them all and managed some how. 45 days ago I asked in a email that I circled to some of my most consistent commentors and people that have contacted me by email, if they would rather I posted more and commented less. The response was 100% post more. A number of readers have requested I post every day which is impossible for my schedule. I Promise my readers I will do my best to catch up! Thanks for being a loyal reader! -Brian

  7. Leon Belmount says:

    Well I am glad that Kendra voiced that subject! I was begining to think that you were going to stop blogging and that would have been a great dissapointment. As I said in my previous comment on your first post, your blog is uncommon and you are pushing the envelop of its definition! That is a good thing! I am not surprised you are busy. People with active minds like yours always are. I am sorry for your friend and I hope they are recovering. My sister developed leukemia so I understand how much impact a health crisis can have on friend’s lives. Thank you for making time for us all and sharing your wit and wisdom. As I said before, if you keep writing and I’ll keep reading. -Leon

  8. GeorgeR says:

    Thanks Brian! Good Post! Interesting coincidence, I just found your blog looking for agile Kanban information and ran across this post of yours. We wanted to try to inject some new ideas into our user community and this seems like a great way to do it. Is there any personality profile that you know of that defines which of the 26 techniques would work better with what type of person? I am curious because if you used trial and error you would never get to the bottom of the list.

  9. Arlan Remlay says:

    Super Blog! You should post every day!

  10. Satoshi says:

    My friend just sent me this link and I am most grateful since I am new to agile. I will spend much time here and learn. Thank you.

  11. H. van Guth says:

    In my company we regularly brainstorm, but this has not generated very many practical creative solutions to problems. Can you suggest a few ways to help us find out what we are doing wrong?

  12. Lydia says:

    Thanks for sharing this Brian. It helped me remove some roadblocks in my own thinking. I am now applying it at work. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with all of us! If you are ever speaking in the Virginia area please let me know! I would like to meet you in person.

  13. Lori Carpenter says:

    Hi Brian! We have tried brainstorming in our company and it doesn’t seem to work for us. I was told to drive this effort and make it work. I was wondering if you were open for a few questions and perhaps a quick phone call. I would appreciate any advice you could give us!

  14. Bob Driscole says:

    Good post on brainstorming!

  15. Dominique Gamez says:

    I always brainstorm best by myself over a cup of coffee at XXXXX (deleted by administrator)! Ha! Ha! Just kidding Brian! I love your blog!

  16. Pablo Ruitz, District Manager of Production [company deleted by administrator] says:

    Mr. Lucas you appear to have much knowledge on the subject of agile. Could you please help us get started on implementing agile in our company? The company our IT department hired to help us was not successful and we wasted much money. You speak with such knowledge and talk about doing things simple. This is what we want to do. We want to start our own initiative. Please call me at [number deleted by administrator]. I appreciate your time.

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