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Jan 18, 2009

Flipcharts and Brainstorming

In the last few months, I have found myself at a table with a few other people, a flipchart stand with markers beside us. We were either brainstorming or prioritizing, or doing something like that. Everyone probably has done something like that. And many have wondered why this inevitably fails to produce anything worthwhile: new ideas, good analysis, or workable solutions. These brainstorming sessions make people feel included, and may generate some buy-in, but ultimately, they fail to produce any good ideas.

Why? – It is very simple. First, people need time to think. If you ask them to think on the spot, they are unlikely to produce good ideas. Second, in a group of people who often don't know each other well, one is unlikely to feel safe enough to propose a truly creative idea. The inner censor starts working; we want to be accepted, not weird on non-conformist. Third, even when an interesting idea does emerge, the person who is taking notes usually ignores is, simply because she or he is thinking about presenting it to a larger group, so the internal censor works again. Those who volunteer take notes often want to make an impression on the large group. Fourth, the teammates are very unlikely to offer support for a truly unusual idea. They will support ideas with which they already agree, and these, by definition, are common-place thoughts. To accept something new, one also needs time, and a new idea needs to be critiqued, and considered at length before it can be accepted. Fifth, the meeting organizers will then summarize ideas presented on all flipcharts. The way you do it is by retaining ideas that are common across all groups, and ignoring the outlying, weird, and improbably suggestions. Once you sift through all generated output through these five filters, you are almost guaranteed to find a list of trivial points well known before your meeting ever took place. So, you waste time of many smart people only to receive a bunch of platitudes in the end.

Why do organizations – from the Governor's office to this university - keep doing it? Mostly, of course, to produce the warm feeling of collaboration, to make the invited individuals feel a part of the common project. Yet it is very dangerous, because everyone leaves with a vague feeling of failure. I mean, everyone can look back at the flipcharts, and see they contain nothing but trivialities. They may also be a little grateful for being asked to contribute. However, the balance is usually negative. You go through these exercises a few times, and you become a cynic. A cynic's buy-in is not worth much.

Small group work is very effective for critiquing a possible idea or a solution. To imagine how things can go wrong, and what unintended consequences are – for these tasks the groups are indispensible. We had some wonderful discussions in which people did come up with good ideas, but only when there was no expectation to do so. A multitude of voices and opinions is also helpful in outlining a scope of possible solutions. All of together know more than each person individually. The genuinely new ideas almost always come from one person, and it is a job of a leader to encourage those ideas to come forward, and then to be discussed, and vetted by all affected and interested. People don't want to be ignored when decisions are made. But the flipcharts and group brainstorming is a path to guaranteed mediocrity.

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