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Report 103

Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

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Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Issue 134

Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your fortnightly newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.

Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found at the end of this newsletter.



What do you expect to get out of a brainstorming activity? Most likely a list of creative ideas. After all, that's the usual result. If you are demanding, you might expect evaluated and well developed ideas. But if you are at the early stage of a new project you might simply want a list of raw ideas to feed future idea development activities.

But there is another approach, and one that I have had some success with: brainstorming to generate a story. The story, of course, should be rich in ideas. However, unlike a simple list, the ideas in the story tend, in my experience, to be better integrated and often more developed in order to fit the story.

Between you and me, I came across brainstorming to generate a story by accident while experimenting with idea generation techniques. However the results were intriguing and the enthusiasm of participants seemed to be higher. That said, the data in this article is based on a small number of sample events and results can certainly be expected to vary.

Visual Brainstorming

I first came across brainstorming stories while experimenting with visual brainstorming (see For example, one activity involved asking three groups to generate ideas for a new headquarters for a non-commercial organisation. One group followed traditional brainstorming methodology, one was given a big box of children's building blocks and one a large whiteboard.

The traditional group generated the expected -- and creative -- list of ideas. However, the other two groups had collaboratively drawn or built (depending on the group) a model of the a headquarters. In presenting their results, the visual brainstormers described their ideas in the form of a story. In retrospect, that is not surprising. The easiest way to describe a scenario or a project is as a narrative rather than as a list of features.

Varied Results

You would probably expect the ideas in a story to be less varied than those generated in a free and open brainstorming session. After all, the ideas would need to fit into the story. In my experience, however, the story groups all generated widely varied results. Indeed, a surprising amount of creativity was often shown in stretching the story to accommodate the wilder ideas. Moreover, the groups seemed to take delight in including surprises in their stories.

Nevertheless, as the brainstorming group builds its narrative, you can expect a certain amount of topic fixation - in other words all participants generating ideas to fit the topic or theme.

The Method

In order to facilitate brainstorming session participants to build stories rather than lists of ideas, you need to be explicit in your instructions and, ideally, provide objects that help participants focus on building their story.

Explicit instructions need to be given as an introduction to the brainstorming activity and should be incorporated into the creative challenge itself. For instance, if you want a team of brainstormers to generate ideas on how to improve the efficiency of your manufacturing plant, don't ask the typical "In what ways might we improve the efficiency of our production line?" This is just asking for a list. Rather ask, "Describe the journey of [your product] riding down an ideal production line." Add to the challenge some additional instructions such as: "Include as many ideas as you possibly can and do not worry at this time about contradictions, impossibilities or strange ideas."

In addition, you could provide participants with large sheets of poster paper or Lego building bricks or other tools to enable them to illustrate their stories. Such tools also have the benefit of helping participants visualise the production line, rather than just think about it in verbal terms.

Here is another example. Imagine you run a chain of hotels and wish to improve the customer experience up to the point of checking into one of your hotels (in fact, such a challenge was recently put to the Imagination Club forum). If you want a list of ideas, you would ask the brainstormers to shout out ideas or put ideas on Post-its. However, if you want stories, a better approach would be to divide the group into smaller teams of four or five people and ask each team to tell the story of the perfect customer experience. Each team should be given a different customer type, such as a business traveller, a honeymooning couple, a tourist family with small children and so on.

To help the groups think, I would suggest you invest in some dolls such as Barbie dolls ( and Action Men ( or their equivalents. Give the appropriate dolls to each team and tell them to imagine the dolls are the customers. Having dolls in their hands will assist in thinking from the customers' perspective as well as in building the narrative.

At the end of the idea generation phase, each team presents its results to the others who provide feedback and additional suggestions. If the teams are not overly reserved, you might have them present their stories as role-plays with participants acting out the roles of customers, hotel staff and so on.

The Next Step

The stories you generate in these events should be considered rough drafts. The next step is to polish them up. This can be done by identifying the most promising ideas and building upon them; identifying the weaker ideas and either improving or eliminating them; and adding new ideas. Indeed, you might run additional brainstorming events focusing on the more promising elements of each story in order to generate more ideas and build upon your story.

One added advantage to brainstorming for stories is that the results are much easier to present to top management, clients, business partners or other groups that need to buy into your best ideas.

Needless-to-say, you are under no obligation to implement the entire story. You may simply implement a few of the best ideas generated in the story. That all depends on your aims.

Room for Experimenting

Brainstorming for stories is still a new approach, although I know other creativity consultants and coaches use it. As a result there is a lot of room for experimentation and trying out new approaches. If you have experience with brainstorming for stories or give it a try, let me know your results. I'm keen to learn about them!



Creative problem solving (CPS) as well as most other structured forms of idea generation start with a challenge such as "In what ways might we reduce operational costs?" or "How might we make our products more appealing to young women?"

In fact, this should not be the start of your CPS action (such as brainstorming, ideas campaign or other idea generation event - but we will use brainstorming in this article). Rather it should be the third. The first step is to identify the problem, goal or issue. The second step is to research the problem and the third step is to turn that problem into a creative challenge. Here we'll look at the second step: research. It's an important, but often neglected component of CPS.

Sometimes No Research Is Best

There is an argument for not researching your problem. Researching the problem and learning how your competitors and others have solved similar problems is all too likely to prejudice you, particularly if you are impressed with the competitors' ideas. For instance, let's imagine your company makes sports shoes. Your goal is to increase sales to teenage girls. You do some research and see that your competitors are selling pink shoes and shoes with designs clearly intended to appeal to teenage girls. Discovering this might well cause you to focus your idea generation on colours and patterns on your shoes. And while this might be a partial solution towards your goal, it is unlikely to be a complete one. After all, you are never going to overtake your competition by copying them. You have to out-innovate them to take the lead. And that means tackling the issue from another angle.

On the other hand, if you do no research, you could spend substantial brainstorming time generating and developing ideas about shoe colours, only to find that with 10 minutes on Google, you could have discovered that your competitors were doing the same thing already.

Usually Broad Research is Better

Keeping with the same scenario, that of the shoe manufacturer wanting to sell to more teenage girls, a better approach would be to perform broad research. Rather than just research what competitors in the shoe business are doing, research overall trends among teenage girls. Learn what all kinds of companies, such as clothing manufacturers, magazine publishers, the music business and every other business that markets to your target group are doing to sell to teenage girls. Look at what teenage girls are reading, listening to and watching on TV. Copying what your competitors are doing is not creative. Copying what a company in a completely different sector -- such as a mobile telephone maker -- is doing and applying it to your sector is often rather innovative!

Likewise, look at how you and your competitors are targeting other groups such as teenage boys, older women, older men and so on. If your marketing communications (marcoms) activities speaks mostly to teenage boys, one focus of your idea generation might be how to modify your marcoms to speak to teenage girls.

Research Sources

I am old enough to remember when researching something meant spending time in the library where a source that was two years old would be considered up to date and you could easily spend hours on the telephone calling people for information. Fortunately, the Internet and Google make initial steps in research remarkably easy.

Indeed, the first step in any CPS research is usually punching key words into Google and following the links. Often, it is a good idea not only to look at links generated on the first page of Google results, but also to look at other pages deeper in the results. I often skip to the 10th page, the 20th page and so on in order to access more obscure information.

Libraries Are Still Your Friends.

As convenient as Google and the Web is, there is nothing like a well written book to put data into context. So a trip to the library or a bookshop for more detailed information is a wise addition to any research.

And Talking

Surveys, focus groups and simply asking customers, colleagues, family and friends for their thoughts on an issue can be surprisingly useful. Some 50 years ago, the primary research many advertising agencies performed was for the employees to ask their wives' opinions. Yet this proved remarkably effective.

Putting It all Together

Once you have done your research, you should be in a position to formulate a creative challenge -- or more likely several challenges -- for your brainstorming, ideas campaigns or other idea generation activities. Moreover, the challenge is more likely to be designed to generate the most effective ideas for your needs.



We humans have a tendency to see problems in a linear way, or strictly speaking, we see them as rays (in mathematics, a "ray" is a line that starts at a point and extends in one direction; a true mathematical line is endless in both directions). We see the ideal scenario as a point at the beginning of the ray and the problems worsening consequences as points further out on the ray, depending on how bad they are.

Global Warming

Consider global warming. Although there is a lot of innovation being focused on this problem, it is linear in nature. We see the the isssue as a ray in which the starting point (ie. lack of a problem) is where all human activity is carbon neutral and our activities have no adverse affect on the planet's climate. As we progress along the ray there is increased global warming and hence more severe consequences for the planet.

Owing to the severity of the problem, individuals, businesses and governments are putting vast resources into innovating in order to return to the starting point of the ray, that is carbon neutrality. Environmentally related innovation includes hybrid cars, alternative energy sources, using more recyclable materials in manufactured products and much more.

But this is not making a sufficient difference. As a result, many scientists are looking at environmental engineering at the global level. That is finding technical solutions to cool down the planet. Indeed, the Royal Society (Britain's main scientific association) has just published in PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY a number of articles under the heading "Geoscale engineering to avert dangerous climate change". Written by some of the UK's top scientists, these are very serious papers on massive, planet-wide engineering projects designed to slow or reverse global warming.

Innovation to Reduce Global Warming Is a Good Thing, But...

Now before I go any farther in this article, I want to emphasise that I believe innovation to reduce global warming is a very good thing and hope to see continued innovation focusing not merely on preventing global warming, but also on being more environmentally friendly in every respect. Whether or not global warming is as serious as the pundits claim, the truth is we humans have been very unfriendly to our environment for decades and we are getting progressively worse. The time has long since passed to reverse this trend and respect our planet.

That said, I believe a horrendous mistake is being made by looking at the global warming problem from a purely linear perspective. In other words, by only trying to develop innovative methods for reducing global warming, we are not seeing the entire problem and as a result threaten future generations with an innovation shortfall that could have terrible consequences.

Consider: most experts and many non-experts tell us that the climate is warming up, that we cannot stop global warming and those actions we take are insufficient to reverse global warming. Assuming this is true, global warming is happening, will continue to happen and will get more severe. This will have very unpleasant consequences globally, from wide-scale flooding in some regions to drought and famine in others. Wilder climatic swings will result in more hurricanes, tornadoes and other nasty weather.

Limit and Exploit the Consequences

Again, assuming global warming predictions are true, we should not limit ourselves to innovating to slow this trend - although we should certainly continue to innovate here - but we should also generate innovative solutions that will help us and our next generations cope with the consequences of global warming.

More radically still, we should begin to look at ways of exploiting the consequences of global warming to make the world a better place. After all, the world has warmed up and cooled down many, many times in its lifetime. Life has continued. Animals have adapted and evolved and humans have managed to do rather well in their relatively short time on the planet. So, there will likely be advantages to be found in global warming. We should innovate to identify and plan how to exploit those advantages.

Looking at problems in a non-linear way is an innovation approach that need not be limited to global warming. Indeed, it can be applied to many problems we face in business and elsewhere. Particularly important is looking not simply at how problems can be solved, but how the consequences of those problems -- if they cannot be solved -- can either be reduced or, better still, exploited to your advantage.



This newsletter is supported by sales of Jenni, our idea management software as a service. Jenni is being used by a small but growing collection of medium to large companies in The USA, Belgium, Australia, South Africa and Brazil to generate innovative ideas for new products, new packaging, improved operational efficiency, being greener and more.

Jenni allows your managers to solicit focused business ideas from across the workforce or from specific groups; it enables users to collaboratively develop ideas and provides evaluation tools so that you can identify those ideas with the greatest potential to become profitable innovations. Learn more at or contact your nearest sales and service professional (



If you want to keep up with the latest news in business innovation, I recommend Chuck Frey's INNOVATIONweek ( It's the only e-newsletter that keeps you up-to-date on all of the latest innovation news, research, trends, case histories of leading companies and more. And it's the perfect complement to Report 103!

Happy thinking!

Jeffrey Baumgartner


Report 103 is a complimentary weekly electronic newsletter from Bwiti bvba of Belgium (a company: Archives and subscription information can be found at

Report 103 is edited by Jeffrey Baumgartner and is published on the first and third Tuesday of every month.

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium