A problem has been identified, someone stands up in front of a flipchart or whiteboard and the rest of us throw out as many ideas as possible. In theory, the ideas generated represent an exhaustive list of creative and innovative solutions. This is the essence of “brainstorming”. And while brainstorming can be an effective technique for generating solutions, there are a few common issues that can surface, such as the subtle danger of groupthink or the power of the initial suggestion guiding or influencing all subsequent ideas. When brainstorming, or trying to solve a problem in general, if you want to help avoid some of the more common traps, consider adding a little structure to the discussion by asking the following questions:
1. Can the problem be avoided? In the spirit of brainstorming this question must be asked. After we have taken the time and effort to define a problem, sometimes there is a bias towards actively solving the problem rather than considering the extent to which we might simply avoid the problem. Examples of avoiding a problem might be deciding not to locate our business or home along the coast where a hurricane may strike, or moving out of an area that is experiencing a sharp rise in crime.
2. Can a solution be engineered? Avoidance is not always possible or it may simply be impractical, which then leads us to ask if a solution can be engineered. When we engineer a solution we are putting in place physical devices to mitigate the problem. For example, installing windows that can resist hurricane strength winds or erecting a fence to keep out would be burglars are examples of engineering solutions.
3. Is training a solution? If a problem cannot be avoided and there is no practical way to engineer a solution, training people with the right skills, knowledge and attitudes can help. It is another path we can use to mitigate an issue. Practicing evacuation or shelter-in-place drills or educating people in the neighborhood about criminal activity and how to report it are examples.
4. Can we share the problem? Most often when a problem exists we are not alone. If we are experiencing a problem, so are quite a few other people. Insurance is probably the best example of reducing a problem by sharing, pooling resources to distribute risk. We buy home insurance to reduce our losses in the event of a break-in or damage from a hurricane. Establishing relationships with neighbors, forming groups and participating in neighborhood-watch communities can help reduce crime. Sharing a problem means asking the question, “Who else is being impacted and how might they be a strategic partner?”
5. How are others solving the problem? While technologies and societies evolve, rarely is there a truly new problem. By asking the group what they know or have heard about other organizations or individuals dealing with similar issues, it can be more comfortable for group members to open up and share ideas that may be counter to the organizational culture. They can couch the idea as one used by a competitor. Too often we have a natural tendency to focus inward on our ideas, never considering techniques and solutions that have worked for others.
A Final Thought
In summary, while brainstorming can be a great technique to help us solve problems, research has shown there are a few common issues such as groupthink or “production blocking”, that can lessen the effectiveness of brainstorming. One way to help counteract these effects is by providing a bit of structure. By asking the five questions presented in this article you can:
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About the Author: Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist with a focus on judgment and decision making. His work experience includes military service, law enforcement, fire prevention and workplace safety. Richard is also a recognized expert witness regarding issues of safety and security. Richard holds an M.S. in workforce development and a Ph.D. in learning and technology.
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.