Innovation’s Front End—Building Better Brainstorming

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Every industry, every company, and every leader I talk to is concerned about innovation. With the speed of change and competition, they realize they must continually innovate to survive. Creativity—and the process of brainstorming—are how we get to innovation.

Great inventions and improvements often start at the brainstorming table. So, why do so many brainstorming sessions feel useless or start with a bang only to yield nothing?

The more ridiculous, the better

The first issue with effective brainstorming is allowing the critic to attend. Despite the fact that we all love to say, “The crazy idea may be the best,” humans are risk-averse. Crazy ideas scare us and committing budget to something weird can sometimes be a career-limiting move. I watch executives pull their hair out trying to get their teams to think of something crazy. But the team may be too afraid to take a risk, even in a theoretical brainstorming session.

To loosen up that fear, and practice the art of accepting craziness, we use an improvisational brainstorming game called the Ad(d) Game. I love it because it demands that the players suspend disbelief, and commit to a ridiculous idea. They must market a household object with an attribute so weird, so unexpected, that it is almost unusable in its traditional form: a vacuum cleaner that blows dirt instead of sucking it up or a car with no wheels.

The improvisational aspect of this game is that the participants have to use the concept of “Yes, and” in their brainstorm.  In improv, we must accept every idea. We must first say “Yes” to any contribution onstage. Then we have to add to it – jump in and play. We have to say “and…” and add our piece.

In the Ad(d) Game, the players enthusiastically plan a rollout of their ridiculous product, complete with pricing, packaging, media plan, celebrity endorsement, and consumer targets. And no matter how ridiculous the idea, every contribution in the brainstorm is greeted with a rousing chorus of “Yes!


Shutting down the critic

I’ve seen two extremes. 95 percent of teams jump into the game, utterly suspend disbelief, commit with energy, and come up with ideas that are so surprising and brilliant, I’m ready to run out and buy that wheel-less car.

Conversely, 5 percent of teams insist the exercise is silly, argue, and come up with the most boring ideas I’ve ever heard. They allow the critic to attend, and spend more time arguing than creating.

(Side note: Who are the lowest performers? Surprise: professional marketing and creative teams. I’ll discuss this anomaly in my next installment of the series.)

So, what’s the point of going for crazy and shutting down the critic? It immediately widens the field of possibility. Although the craziest ideas may not be useable, they expand the breadth of the applied ideas. If you’re playing it safe in a limited field of ideas, the chosen ideas (usually in the middle) will remain mundane.

For example, consider the power plant being constructed in Copenhagen. As the architects and planners brainstormed about the environment, someone noted that there’s nowhere to snowski in Copenhagen. They joked about a ski slope on the power plant. A ridiculous idea, right? But the architects finally said, “Yes! And aren’t we trying to create greener, more integrated cities? Very soon, you’ll be able to take a lift to top of the power plant, and ski down.

Hope this gives you some inspiration for your next ideation session.

In the next installment, I’ll explore two more ways to make brainstorming more effective: embracing the inevitable lull and inviting the lay people. 

About the Author


Karen Hough is the founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, which helps companies transform behavior through interactive training. With a presence in five cities, ImprovEdge’s client list includes ESPN, Coach, Nationwide Insurance, Legg Mason, Cardinal Health, Novo Nordisk, and Turner Broadcasting. Karen is also a number 1 Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post, and recipient of the Stevie Silver International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012, as well as the Athena PowerLink Award for Outstanding Woman-Owned Business. Her second, award-winning book, Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over, was published in 2014 by Berrett-Koehler. 

Karen’s first life was as a professional improviser and actor. She trained with Chicago’s legendary Second City, performed in more than 100 theatrical productions, and was featured on radio, TV, and film. She lived a second life as a successful executive in network engineering. Finally, she became an entrepreneur. Karen is a Certified Speaking Professional and has presented to audiences of thousands both in the United States and internationally. She is a graduate of Yale University and La Sorbonne, Paris IV. 

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