By: Stephen M. Sweid
Dr. Stephen Sweid has conducted more than a hundred structured group brainstorming sessions in recent years, as well as many one-to-one discussion sessions as a consultant and trainer. He has observed a number of common patterns related to timing and evolution of the brainstorming process.
There is a lot of talk about traditional group brainstorming and its efficacy. Although there are a number of factors involved in the success of group brainstorming sessions, Dr. Sweid is underlining the significance of the timing issue. Same is true for one-to-one discussions. This is possibly only a reminder and not a new discovery, nonetheless it is essential in our era of intense innovation.
The process and pattern observed in the brainstorming sessions
A sudden eruption (burst) of ideas in terms of quantity and quality of creative ideas starts taking place.
Dr.Sweid noticed the following pattern, i.e. consistent behavior and outcome:
- There is a critical lead time where there is little generated in terms of quantity and quality of creative ideas, i.e. during the warming up time (incubation time, buildup time) only few low level ideas emerge.
- Once this lead time has elapsed, a sudden eruption (burst) of ideas in terms of quantity and quality of creative ideas starts taking place, i.e. the process goes into the exponential gear, possibly similar to the effect of the Zener diode, or tunneling effect in diodes, where an avalanche takes place. This is a Multiplier effect becoming exponential. It is as if suddenly things click into place and a state of resonance is created. High added value ideas start flowing. Tens of great innovative ideas are generated during the exponential phase. At this stage we get many WOW type ideas.
- It is astonishing that this lead time is quite consistent (repetitive) in its value for group brainstorming and same is true for one-to-one discussions, although the two values are different.
This critical lead time is crucial if a bouquet of WOW creative ideas is to be gained. If you stop earlier you might get some new ideas but only the incremental improvement type and not the breakthrough category. This observation is important considering the general trend to accelerate such processes and to finish the session quickly but possibly too early.
Even after some 30 minutes of a one-to-one discussion, ideas generated are not of the WOW type, but mainly some incremental improvements. With perseverance and persistence, suddenly there is a breakthrough followed by an avalanche or eruption of the volcano: Breakthrough ideas start emerging. This is the case even with structured approach and preparation and question lists, etc.
About the length of lead time to eruption
In group brainstorming WOW innovative ideas start erupting after approximately 25 minutes. In one-to-one discussions this lead time is in the region of 1hour and 15 minutes. Afterwards, much better ideas start flowing. Hence one has to stick it out and keep the natural discussion going.
Subsequent to the onset of eruption
In group brainstorming one can continue for some 15-30 minutes after start of eruption, but then people become tired out quickly since this is an intense exercise.
In one-to-one discussions the timescale is different. Following start of eruption, one should stick it out for another hour or hour and half to collect a bouquet of WOW ideas. In a one-to-one discussion, the generation of ideas is slower than for group brainstorming, since an actual discussion is taking place covering the different perspectives of a specific theme. The total duration of 2 hours 30min up to 3 hours is quite typical. One does not feel the time, it becomes exciting. It is important not to look at the clock! It is important to initially be prepared to spend a few hours in the meeting.
It is important to be aware of this critical timing issue, because if you stop a one-to-one discussion after one hour, then there will be less in terms of innovative ideas and WOW solutions. Same goes for group brainstorming sessions. For instance, if you stop after some 30 minutes after starting, then you will not harvest the best yet to come.
Objective of the brainstorming sessions conducted
A comprehensive coverage is sought, addressing the different perspectives of a specific concept.
WOW ideas were sought, i.e. breakthrough ideas and solutions. They are considered great due to their creative level as well as in their application to the real world. What is also sought is a diversity of choices, which is typical of creative thinking, hence not only one creative idea or solution but a big bunch and assortment. Furthermore, a comprehensive coverage is sought, addressing the different perspectives of a specific concept.
In brief, higher level added value ideas are sought, and quite a number of them, for a complex issue in addition to a comprehensive coverage.
The prevailing conditions
As indicated earlier, in recent years Dr.Sweid has conducted in excess of a hundred structured group and one-to-one brainstorming sessions as a consultant and trainer. These took place in a number of countries, covering both genders, a wide spectrum of ages, ethnic groups, different languages, management levels, and covering many industries, topics and objectives. Topics discussed might have included business concept development of a start-up project, marketing strategy, suggestions for new product ideas, finding solutions for a specific business problem or situation, or discussing joint work.
For group brainstorming sessions there were 10 or more participants in each session, and of diverse backgrounds. There were one or even two facilitators in brainstorming. In the case of two facilitators they were complementing each other and resonating with each other. A very specific topic was addressed, expressed as a simple question. Someone was taking notes of the suggestions on a flip chart. A positive setting prevailed with a lot of relaxation and fun, focus on generation of creative ideas, some positive feedback and comments but no criticizing. Participants were not prepared beforehand. Every participant was encouraged to contribute. The rooms were spacious and bright.
In the case of one-to-one discussions and brainstorming we are have a quasi normal discussion and not a structured brainstorming session, nevertheless with emphasis on a positive atmosphere and effort to resonate with each other, including preparation and stimulating questions. The setting in all cases was very creative, positive and stimulating, e.g. a nice café or nice conference room, with a lot of laughs. There might be some diversion from time to time to keep the creative atmosphere going, e.g. talking about something else. It is important to avoid looking at the watch, as not to spoil the flow of the atmosphere.
Some tentative explanations as to why a critical time is needed
Time is needed for people to feel ownership of the topic and discussion.
There is this human factor involved in timing. It is about getting a little bit more familiar with the topic and requirements, i.e. to get a better feel for the problem and solutions, to digest and get inspired, all in the brain. Time is needed to get into the right frame of mind, or mindset or mood, etc. Time is needed for people to feel ownership of the topic and discussion. Time is possibly needed to get fully immersed in the topic, mentally and spiritually. Time is possibly needed to link both imagination and reality together.
Timing also has to do with synergy of the people involved, as well as the synergy of the thoughts. Initially, each participant is playing solo but then all participants start orchestrating. People become better attuned to each other and to the topic and start resonating. They get into the swing. Basically, there is this interaction with the topic at hand but also with the other participants. Time is needed to have adequate level of cross pollination.
It might be that the repetitive length of the lead time is associated with the specific brainstorming conditions being applied by the author. The use of other methodology or tools can possibly shift this time upwards or downwards.
What is different to thousands of years ago?
Since no modern technologies were used in the brainstorming sessions mentioned, it is very likely that such a pattern or similar behavior has been discovered thousands of years ago. Dr.Sweid has practiced very frequently structured brainstorming and discussions geared towards creativity; this might be the reason why he noticed this timing pattern in the first place. It is not like a usual conversation carried out three thousand years ago in Babylon. Nevertheless, different breakthroughs in science, e.g. discovery of the wheel or alphabet, and other successful strategies in ancient history, might have been achieved by parties who mastered the application of the critical lead time in discussions!
It has to do with patience and the willingness to stick it out that much longer. It is about that extra perseverance, but with sustainable positive atmosphere.
Even if there is preparation and structured sessions, one should not forget the factor of lead time to reach the eruption stage. When the eruption phase is reached one should keep it up for a while and not stop, until a good collection of WOW novel ideas is generated. It has to do with patience and the willingness to stick it out that much longer. It is about that extra perseverance, but with sustainable positive atmosphere.
There are many other methods to generate creative ideas including different versions of group brainstorming, using tools and software, etc. There are also many personal brainstorming techniques. Things keep improving and transforming constantly. It is the view of the author that the traditional group brainstorming should be considered as only a small part of the whole process of ideation. Nevertheless, it is crucial to take notice of the timing issue for a multiplied performance.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen M. Sweid is a business and innovation consultant / trainer, with over 20 years consulting experience on the international scene: Europe, USA, Middle East and Far East. He has involved as expert consultant in technical assistance projects of international organizations as well as in consulting projects commissioned by multinationals.
He is currently active in the UK and UAE. His consultancy focuses on strategic issues, quantum leaping, innovation and marketing.
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