When Brainstorming's Busted: Common Sense Concepts for Productive Ideation

by Michael Colombo
Jul 13, 2017

I had a client ask me recently, "Where do your ideas come from?" He was talking about Maark and it was a good question. Where do our ideas come from? There's not an easy answer. In my experience, idea generation has never been easy. The best ideas always seemed to come when the work of idea generation was over. When there were two people left, it was 10 o'clock at night, and you weren't sure if the idea would hold up to sobriety's judgmental glare. Small groups. Fits of thought. Dead ends. An idea. 

It's painful. And maybe it should be. "Fine things are hard." Right? Any formalized process of idea generation that I've ever read about or participated in has similar problems. There's often no clear accountability for output. Instead, participation is established as the highest virtue without a corresponding demand for the individual study needed to gain context. How many hours does it take to become an expert on something? Around a thousand? And how many hours does it take to become relevant?

And yet companies like ours continue to pitch programs to our clients (and to our employees) that attempt to productize the output of good ideas. I get it. It's tempting. Corporations today need to buy ideas - not because their people don't have them but because their cultures often oppress the self-determinism needed for any meaningful breakthrough. Good ideas come from a certain contemplative passion that has as its default assumption an ability to see it through - for it not to be wasted effort. This assumption has no place inside many corporations so they turn outside. And after shopping for the best deal they can find on good ideas they wind up buying that Design Thinking workshop or ludicrously priced consultant as a quick fix to a busted system. 

But what if there’s a more pragmatic answer that's not a productized pseudo-system, but just a set of common sense principles? Here’s what we're trying at Maark. Four basic principles for idea generation: 

1. Every ideation exercise has an owner. The first step to establish better output is to put someone on the hook for it. They should show up with research and a clear perspective to get the debate started. At Maark, this can be onerous. And it should be. We’re often trying to weave ideas through complex business strategies. For our clients it’s not just about getting attention. It's often about communicating a vision for the future of an industry. So that initial research can take weeks because it needs to be on point. And it needs a single owner.

2. Every participant should be relevant to the conversation. If you are working in a group, keep it small and make sure everyone is relevant. I don't know exactly how many hours it takes to be relevant, but it isn't zero. If someone is not well enough versed in the problem/industry/company to generate contextually-relevant ideas, they won’t help. Individual research assignments prior to coming together ensures that everyone is starting from a common, baseline context for the conversation. Brainstorming is work that can also be fun, not the other way around.

3. Along with preparation, place your highest premium on focus. Idea generation has a tendency to drift…leading often either to Facebook or groupthink. For us, focus comes back to the two themes mentioned above - preparation and accountability. When basic research is happening, focused ideas are not. So come prepared. And when there’s no accountability, there’s no pressure to deliver. On every employee review form at Maark there is a section titled, “Embraces and drives innovation.” Just as the agency is responsible to its clients for serving as a sort of think tank for their business, so is every individual at Maark responsible to the agency for their contribution. And they are scored on it. This takes ideation out of the realm of an inconsequential break from the grind, and creates real-world, individual stake in outcomes. Drive focus through preparation and accountability. 

4. Follow up immediately. . Ideation is not an open-ended conversation where we can just agree to disagree. The idea owner needs to deliver ideas that can be evaluated in time to execute on them. Each session, then, should be distilled into takeaways and immediate next steps until conclusions are reached. The brainstorming process needs urgency in order to have meaningful output. Together, we need to get this done quickly.

But here's the thing. These pragmatic principles might serve you better than either the patented process or the bleary-eyed eureka, but they aren't a quick fix. Don't buy that snake oil. Ultimately, corporate culture needs to change in order to start producing the ideas that will save it from the digital extinction event coming at it. With digital transformation on everyone's cliché bingo board, you know what you’re up against. A change in culture from communal mediocrity to self-determination, from fear of risk to the free pursuit of innovation, and from glacial inertia to rapid iteration. This cultural shift along with some pragmatic preparation and accountability principles will be core to the companies that have success amidst disruption.

Mike is the founder of Maark and has served as the agency’s strategic, creative and technology lead in programs ranging from complete digital transformation of Fortune 500 clients, end-to-end relaunch of category-leading brands, and strategy, design and development of new digital products.

It Takes a (Design-Led) Village
Design creates incredible value when allowed to lead, but is it possible for design to have too much sway?
7 Principles for Great UI Animations
Animation in a UI is a great way to give the user feedback about the product experience...if done right.
4 Things I Didn’t Expect When I Transitioned from Print Design to Digital Design
M. Saito describes the newfound joys and challenges of digitizing her profession.