Usually the best way to figure something out is to lock yourself away and concentrate. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
Open plan offices are a disaster from this perspective. So, often but not always, are the ubiquitous ‘brainstorming’ sessions. Far too often any problem worth tackling, presented to a group of people sitting around a big table, results in a sea of blank faces. Followed by a good deal of displacement activity.
Often, but not always.
Because sometimes getting a diverse bunch of people together to work on something extemporaneously can indeed be productive. A meeting? Productive? Really?
Well sure. But if we’re trying to tackle a question sufficiently formidable that we’ve hauled a whole bunch of people together to attack it, how do we engineer a ‘brainstorm’ instead of a ‘brainfreeze’ (or worse)?
It’s not, usually, about how we state the problem. It’s about how we tackle it. Very often the right question might be ‘what can we do to begin to approach this problem?’ rather than ‘how do we solve this problem?’
There are any numbers of approaches you might take to this kind of brainstorming. I’ll share one that I use for myself, but, of course, Your Mileage May Vary…
I’ve always enjoyed chess, and I find that a kind of chess analogy can work in figuring out how to tackle an issue. The basic idea is to figure out whether we are in the opening (before all the pieces have been ‘developed’), the middle-game (maneuvering for some kind of ‘advantage’) or the end-game – ‘winning’.
– In the opening, which can be quite long, we take simple, incremental steps. If we can’t see a solution or even how to approach a solution, then we’re in the opening. The questions here are things like ‘what simple steps can we take that might move us forward and put us in a good position’?’, ‘what’s the next step?’ or even ‘what’s the minimum we can do to take us forward?’. The trick here is to ensure that the steps we’re going to try are straightforward actions, not projects in and of themselves. We have to break things down into actionable steps. If we have an intractable, enterprise-wide Knowledge Management issue, and someone gets hold of an off-the-shelf wiki platform and starts playing with it, that’s a great opening phase move.
– In the middle-game, we can begin to look for tactical combinations of things that create decisive progress. ‘What if we do <this> and <that>, and at the same time do <this>?’ At this stage we expect what we do to have a real and measurable impact that takes us not just into the problem, but towards a potential ultimate solution. If someone reflects on a new and somewhat left-field client relationship, and starts thinking about how the product might extend to other compatible organisations, that’s great middle-game thinking.
– In the end-game we move systematically but not impulsively to a closing solution. We don’t want to miss something and get caught out in our excitement at seeing the end goal in sight. Bringing in an outside expert and tasking him on upgrading our customer service capability without boxing him into a particular set of prejudices could be a really effective end-game move.
So the first question for any issue is ‘what phase are we in here?’ My own experience is that ‘stalling’ on a problem is usually a result of not recognizing that we’re still in the opening, rather than the end-game. A lot of unsatisfactory brain-storming sessions I’ve been involved in have failed because the participants are trying to figure out how to get to checkmate before any of the pieces have been moved yet.
A consequence of this ‘model’ is that you shouldn’t necessarily expect to come out of a meeting having a solution to the items you took in – you may just have some steps that people can take.
There are other approaches of course, such as asking ‘how can we redefine the problem?’, but my experience is that this type of creative insight doesn’t drop easily out of a group brainstorming, so much as individual reflection.