Cartoon: boss criticises idea

Bosses in Brainstorms

In a hotel bar, I spy a man in a suit crying into what looks like his fourth whiskey on the rocks. He looks familiar. Maybe I have run into him at some creativity conference somewhere. I walk over to him and ask, "Are you okay?"

He looks up at me with eyes red from drink and tears, "I know you," he says. "You're Jeremy, that uncon... no, noncorre.. oh, yes, I remember: anticonventional guy."

"Jeffrey, actually" I say.

"Peter," he says, shaking my hand.

"What on earth has upset you, Peter?" I ask.

He gulps down the last of the whiskey in his glass and nods to the barkeeper for another. "Well, you see, I was facilitating a brainstorm for this chemicals company. It was going well. A great group. We had defined a problem statement and were about to go to ideation when the CEO himself walks in."

"That's great!" I say.

"No it's not, people always get nervous when the boss comes into a brainstorm."

I don't agree, but keep my mouth shut.

"Anyway, in spite of the CEO being there, people slowly suggest ideas and I write them on the board. They are starting to loosen up and the ideas are getting better when a woman says something really off-the wall, you know, different to all the other suggestions. Everyone goes quiet for a moment and the CEO, who is a chemical engineer by training, looks straight at this woman and says, 'a chemical combination like that would be unstable, we couldn't possibly package it safely.'"

"And what did you do?" I ask.

"Well, I hate to criticise the CEO, after all, he's the one who authorises my payment. But, criticism is not allowed in brainstorming. Not at all! So, I said to him, 'excuse me sir, but in brainstorming, we do not allow criticism of ideas. It stifles creativity.' To his credit, he apologised graciously to me and to the woman whose suggestion he criticised and sat politely and quietly throughout the rest of the ideation. But, the session never picked up after that. People suggested ideas, but the enthusiasm was gone and the ideas were not very creative after that."

Of course it was Peter's fault that the brainstorm went bad, not the CEO's, but I didn't tell him that. Instead I had a sympathy drink with him before going off for dinner alone.

Every Brainstorm Facilitator's Nightmare

If you have led brainstorms, you have probably run into a situation like Peter's. The brainstorm starts off nicely enough, but a senior manager joins the crowd and criticises an idea. As a facilitator, you probably think you have two choices: either say nothing or scold the senior manager for criticising. Sadly, neither choice will save the situation.

If you say nothing, and hope for the best, you let the senior manager's criticism stand unquestioned, thereby legitimising it as well as the manager's behaviour. This is likely to inhibit people's thinking because it will be unclear what kind of ideas are wanted. It will also cause confusion because you have stated that criticism is not allowed, yet you have allowed criticism. The result, of course, is people become unsure about what is permitted and therefore cautious, which stifles their creativity.

On the other hand, if you follow the example of Peter and criticise the boss for criticising ideas − without remarking on the criticism itself − you let the criticism itself stand unquestioned, which suggests that you accept it. Worse, you criticise a participant of the brainstorm; the CEO is, after all, a participant. As a result, you create anxiety among participants who will worry that you may criticise them if they say the wrong thing. They also worry about the CEO's original criticism. So, your action leads to anxiety, caution and reduced creativity.

The Third Choice

In fact, there is a third choice in this scenario. You could engage the boss and the participants in a discussion of the idea and the criticism. Think about the situation I described in the story above. Although the CEO criticised a woman's idea, he was actually complimenting the woman, not to mention the facilitator and the issue being brainstormed! He was in effect saying "your idea interests me to the point where I have thought it through and found a fault that concerns me and which I would like to discuss with you." Is that not much more of a compliment than simply ignoring an idea or saying "good idea" after every suggestion?

What if Peter had said to the CEO, "normally criticism is not allowed in brainstorming, but as you have made this criticism, I think we should let Patricia respond to it. Patricia, what do you have to say the criticism?" This gives Patricia an opportunity to defend her idea and build upon it. Meanwhile, other participants would feel that if the CEO criticises them, Peter would also step in on their behalf. This would reduce anxiety and make participants feel more confident in being creative during idea generation.

If he had taken such an approach, Peter would have legitimised Patricia's idea, ensured the CEO heard a great idea being developed and encouraged people to be more creative. Of course, he would also have broken the sacred rule of brainstorming and might go to creative hell after he dies. But that does not concern us here.

Obsession with No Criticism

This obsession with no criticism of ideas which sometimes leads to criticism of people is one reason why brainstorming is not very creative. It inhibits creativity by forbidding a real discussion of ideas during ideation, which is when people are supposed to be thinking more creatively. Yes, you can criticise and question ideas later, during the convergent phase that comes after the brainstorm. But at this time, participants are not focusing on creative development, but rather combining and selecting ideas. So, ideas that are not clear or seem flawed (because they could not be clarified during ideation) are usually rejected.

The Don't Brainstorm Approach

Yet another approach is to drop traditional brainstorming as an ideation approach. Most innovation managers have not had productive experiences with brainstorming and this is not surprising. Research has shown the brainstorming is not an effective approach for developing highly creative ideas and one of the reasons this is true is the prohibition on criticism. Instead use or develop a method that encourages criticism.

Anticonventional thinking (ACT) is one such method that actively encourages criticism of ideas following a simple set of rules:

  1. Always criticise boring and conventional ideas.
  2. Criticise the idea and not the person.
  3. After you have criticised an idea, you must be quiet and allow the idea owner or anyone else to defend the idea.

In my experience, when the CEO participates in an idea development session that encourages criticism, the results are very empowering for the participants who interact with the CEO. It is often the only time people below top management can really engage in a critical discussion of ideas with the CEO and other senior staff.

Break a Brainstorm Rule Now and Again

If brainstorming works for you, that's fine. But when a senior manager sits in on one of your brainstorms and criticises an idea, I suggest you temporarily break the rules and invite a discussion about the criticism itself. I guarantee you it will result in a creative boost for your brainstorm both during the discussion and afterwards.

Better still, try running a brainstorm in which people can criticise ideas as they are suggested. It is a very simple experiment and I believe you will be impressed with the results.

Alternatively, give up on brainstorming and give ACT a try.



ACT in Your Organisation

Are you fed up with brainstorms and similar ideation techniques that do not deliver the kind of creative results you need? If so, contact me about ACT training and facilitation in your organisation. ACT more effectively taps into the creative potential of your colleagues than any other creative thinking method in the universe! Learn more about ACT here or contact me to discuss your creative and innovation requirements.




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




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