Brainstorming: Design Thinking vs. Science

This may not seem like a CX-related post, but bear with me a minute.

I attended a fabulous CXPA event on CX Day this week. Laurie Englert (full disclosure: she’s a client), the VP of Customer Experience at Legrand’s AV Division, shared how her team uses design thinking. We then applied those skills to strategize for Bike.MN. Nearly 100 CX enthusiasts focused together on helping Bike.MN build more business partnerships.

That said, there’s a central component to design thinking that bugs me: its brainstorming approach. As the facilitator (who wasn’t Laurie) shared, brainstorming in design thinking is an active exercise where you quickly put out ideas on Post-It Notes and then build on them with more ideas. This isn’t unique to last night’s presentation – whenever I encounter design thinking it involves this traditional out-loud approach to brainstorming.

It’s certainly a fun way to do it. But does it work?

First, we should define what it means to “work.” What is success in terms of brainstorming? If it’s to engage the team around ideas, this is probably a good method. If it’s to build on the first ideas shared, it’s definitely a good method.

But if it’s to get the most varied ideas, and to engage the most people, it’s flawed.

The traditional shout-out-loud brainstorming certainly feels good. But there’s significant evidence that instead of getting the most ideas out, it restricts variety. Susan Adams, Forbes’ Senior Editor, wrote an article titled “4 Steps to Successful Brainstorming,” which is based on an interview of Ralph Keeney, emeritus professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. It states: “Before heading into a group brainstorming session, organizations should insist that staffers first try to come up with their own solutions. One problem with group brainstorming is that when we hear someone else’s solution to a problem, we tend to see it as what Keeney calls an ‘anchor.’”

In other words, whoever speaks first determines the direction of the brainstorming.

Worse, the “out loud” nature of traditional brainstorming is great for extroverts, but it shuts down introverts. As documented in the Harvard Business Review article, “How ’Brainwriting’ Can Get Better Ideas Out of Your Team,” “Research indicates that in a typical six-person meeting, two people do more than 60 percent of the talking. Increase the size of the group, and the problem only gets worse.”

Why do we care? Well, show me somebody trying to improve customer outcomes, and I’ll show you somebody who needs brainstorming – but done right, or, perhaps better said, “done write.”

The best way to get the most divergent ideas is to have people write their ideas first. Ideally, have participants do it on their own prior to your meeting. That will require some nagging, but that’s how you’ll get the most divergent ideas. If you can’t get them to do it ahead of time, then set aside time for them to write during your workshop.

Once that’s complete, have everybody put their ideas on the board, then group them. This will prevent people from backing down and feeling too embarrassed to share their ideas. Once all the ideas are up, start combining and building.

Design thinking is a wonderful tool, and I’m a huge advocate. It’s simply the brainstorming method that needs to be addressed.

Once you do, you’ll generate the most ideas possible to help improve your customer experience.


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1 reply
  1. Ann Gougebas
    Ann Gougebas says:

    I agree. Our original agenda had each person brainstorm individually, then share their favorite idea with the team, then build on each person’s ideas, then pick a favorite, then build on that with the goal to have one favorite to share with the bigger group.

    Reply

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