Boring Ideas and Boring Dinner Guests

Jeffrey Baumgartner

One of the assumptions in brainstorming and creative problem solving (CPS) is that you need to generate a lot ideas in order to have creative ideas. As I understand it, the operating assumption is that if people are pushed to generate a lot of ideas, they will start by suggesting conventional, obvious, boring ideas until they run out of such ideas and are forced to come up with creative ideas instead. To the best of my knowledge, this hypothesis has never been demonstrated in any empirical way. Although I used to believe in this notion, I now believe it is wrong.

Let's compare this assumption to a boring dinner guest. Imagine you are at a dinner party and you are seated next to a guy who starts telling you boring stories. Many such stories, one after the other. Assuming you do not want to be bored to death, you have several strategies you can choose from. If you follow the assumption of brainstorming, you can sit and listen to the guy telling his boring stories in hopes that he will eventually exhaust himself of dull anecdotes and start telling exciting stories. Perhaps you believe this strategy will work. I do not.

Alternatively, you could find an excuse to talk to someone else at the dinner party, someone who is more interesting. This is probably what most of us would do.

But there is a third option. You could try and provoke him into telling interesting stories. How could you do that? By asking provocative questions about his stories. Ask him why he did something obvious instead of something crazy. Perhaps he is telling a story of being caught in a lift (elevator in US English) -- and the narrative is about as exciting as sitting in an unmoving lift! Don't yawn and bear it. Ask him why he didn't break the door down. Ask him what he would have done if the lift suddenly started plunging to the ground floor. What if the doors opened in a completely different building? What if the doors opened on another planet? What if Scarlett Johansson was also in the lift and wanted to kiss him (but he's married)?

In fact, this would probably be the most interesting strategy: ask him the most outrageous questions you can think of in order to force him out of his boring story comfort zone and make his stories more interesting. It would be much more fun than listening to him bore you. Indeed, you might find that after half an hour, all the attention at the party is on you, the previously dull dinner guest and your crazy stories!

You can do the same thing while generating creative ideas in a group -- such as in brainstorming or anticonventional thinking. But it requires that you break the golden rule of brainstorming, that you must reserve judgment and not criticise ideas. Instead, you need to be able to judge ideas boring and ask questions that are effectively criticisms of ideas. For example, if you are brainstorming ideas for improving corporate communications and someone says, "let's build an intranet in which every department maintains a blog that they must update regularly", you should be able to reply, "We already have an intranet. It's boring. No one looks at it. How can we make people want to read those blogs?" or "Great, but if I want to find out the chemical composition of one of a cleaning product that is under development, how am I going to find it?" or "Who is going to read and write all those blogs? You know we're working 60 hour days! How can we communicate more efficiently?"

By asking such questions, you force the idea submitter to think about her suggestion and improve it. You potentially move from an obvious but flawed idea to a better developed and more intriguing idea.

Critical questions are not allowed in brainstorming. They are welcome in anticonventional thinking. This is because research and my own experience demonstrates that if you want a high level of creativity, criticism, questioning and defending ideas are better than passive acceptance of every idea uttered.

Not convinced? Here's a suggestion. Try it your next idea generation event. Allow people to ask critical questions about ideas, but be sure that it is the ideas and not the idea submitters that are being questioned. See what happens.


© 2012

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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