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Why Is My Creative Brainstorm Not Creative!

24/06/2022
— Alvin Zhong 

Recently, the WE Studio attended the VIVID Idea Exchange lecture “Death to Brainstorms”, run by prolific media guru and now author Tim Duggan. The session spoke to the need to reform and revitalise the creative brainstorm - which hasn’t evolved since it’s birth by Alex Osborn (that’s the O in BBDO) in the 1940s - which can bring equity, joyfulness and innovation into the workplace.  

 Here are the key things that gave us food for thought: 

The problem with Brainstorms

Duggan claims the brainstorm has become creatively stifling for 6 reasons:

  • Focus – a brainstorm, due to its impromptu nature, is nebulous and not considered. We can all relate to the initial friction that occurs when we first encounter a problem. The sudden confrontation with the problem means that focus in brainstorms tend to grind to a halt, or drift and move into unnecessary places.
  • Group Thinking – This one doesn’t require elaboration. Brainstorms can lend themselves to the inherent politics of a space, only taking in the opinions of those who speak the loudest.
  • Wrong problem – Sometimes in brainstorms, because of the lack of structure, we end up leaving them having discussed the entirely wrong problem at hand.
  • Introverts – The inherent social nature of brainstorms means that sometimes the quieter voices in the crowd get left out. Introverts often get trampled over in brainstorms, so how do we nurture their voice?
  • HiPPO’s (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) – Something that bring brainstorms to a grinding halt is this very important power dynamic. Sometimes it’s so significant it can be felt, even if they’re not present in the brainstorm. Creative and innovative ideas that are risky but fresh get stamped out if it’s not guaranteed to make the HIPPO money.
  • Hybrid Work – Duggan says this is the greatest accelerating of the death of the Brainstorm, the failure to adapt to a hybrid model. With flexible work now here to stay, the brainstorm needs to become more comfortable being teased into digital spaces.

The solution to Brainstorms  

Duggan created a methodology that rethinks the brainstorm into something he calls a “Cerebration” (that’s a combination of “Cerebral” and “Celebration”), which emphasises that “coming up with ideas should be like a party”. The brainstorm needs to reinvent itself as a positive and open environment that feels like a good time, welcomes all, and encourages people to let loose with their creativity. He says that the key to a good party, and by extension, a good Cerebration, takes three steps.

Step 1: Blow up the balloons. (Figure out and circle the main problems at stake)

To set the festive atmosphere, you have to play the part, right? Blowing up the balloons is a metaphorical way of “blowing up the task at hand”. Before you even start the celebration, some time needs to be spent to digest and reframe the ask at stake. The first balloon to blow up is converting the client’s ask to us into a clear problem or question. When you’ve found that first question, you draw a big circle around it, creating a visual balloon. From there, you can divide the main problem into smaller problems or balloons. Again, with every problem, you draw a circle around it to create a “balloon”. This way, you eliminate the issues with addressing the wrong problem and focus in both writing and visually.

Step 2: Write out the cards (A few minutes of silent thinking to yourself)

What’s the smallest gesture you bring can bring to the party (apart from booze)? You write a card detailing your thanks. Similarly, in Cerebrations, instead of jumping right into talking out ideas, everyone takes 5-10 minutes of silence to write down their ideas on small cards with no external influence. This way, we eliminate the problems that Group thinking and HIPPOs pose, and we create space for Introverts or those who are unable to attend physically to have their opinions fully heard and considered.

Step 3: Share the presents (Talk about your ideas)

The last step is to share gifts together. Starting from whose birthday is closest, the first person shares their ideas and places them on the outer edge of the circle. Eventually, as the cerebration continues on, you’ll begin to see clusters of similar or shared ideas form in parts of the balloon, and some outliers. This is a great way to see the large scope of thinking from the mainstream to the fringe, to the weird and the wonderful. The key to this is to make the atmosphere very much like a party. Much like improv, positive language and “yes and-ing” will make your Cerebration great, inviting everyone to have a chance to share ideas.

 What’s the purpose of all this? Duggan says that his methodology is the key to making good ideas really sing. And whilst this probably isn’t the Funeral for brainstorms as claimed, it certainly was a great refresher on how to make brainstorms more inclusive and fun for all.