Death to Brainstorming
Posted on October 21, 2013
“Creativity is dead.”
Carl walked out of another fruitless brainstorming session feeling despondent with more questions than good ideas that address the clients’ brief. Carl, an award-winning creative director at an upstart advertising agency, had been mulling over the brief with his colleagues, some of the most brilliant minds in the industry.
“Those mental blocks get to even the best of us,” Carl lamented to himself as he left the office for a quick smoke.
He understood well that the quantity of ideas matter more than the quality of ideas — at least at the beginning. “Perhaps we just need to give the team more time to crack the brief.”
Times are changing as we live in an attention deficit culture. The audience craves instant gratification and quick fixes while their brains unconsciously filters anything that resembles an advertisement. According to the latest statistics verified by the Associated Press, a modern audience average attention span has decreased from 12 second in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2012.
The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.
Carl took his last puff and looked intently at a distance towards a group of children building sand castles at the playground. His brows furrowed for a moment before his eyes glinted in slight amusement and relief. “The team doesn’t need more time. They just need to be engaged in the process of ideation. We’ve been trying the same brainstorming techniques for ages, it’s time to switch things up.”
With an empty box in his hand and several rolls of paper, Carl instructed everyone in the room to leave their mobile devices in the box to the dismal of a few who had to end their brief chat with friends on Facebook. Inside the box were 8 mobile phones and an iPad. He quickly gathered a few volunteers to cover the top of the meeting table in sheets of paper secured by masking tape at the bottom. Gripping a thick marker, Carl condensed the client’s brief into a single question.
“We’re going to play a game of pictorial musical chairs. And I want each and everyone of you to draw your ideas on the table using as little words as possible. Refer and answer the question written on the whiteboard.”
The copywriters and strategic planners in the room looked at each other with doubt as they picked their markers and surrounded the long table sitting in the middle of the room. The music started playing. The idea of working on a blank sheet this wide scared the creatives. But as soon as someone started drawing, the rest of the room soon eased into the process and drew what was on their minds. 3 minutes passed and the music began to mellow. The art director, refining his sketch, grinned to himself as if he just invented the best thing since popcorn.
“Everyone lift your markers and move to the next spot in a clockwise direction.”
“Now, interpret the last person’s idea and build on top of it.”
The energy level in the room escalated together with the explosion of confusion and amusement within the creative group. Some tried to explain their idea to the last person but was left with little time to develop on the next idea. The next music track was playing at a faster beat and it was time to switch after 2 minutes.
“Ok, move on and do the same for the next idea.”
With each round there was lesser and lesser time to add on to the existing ideas, but everyone contributed their own perspective and insight to what the last person drew. At the end of a complete round wherein each person returned to their original spot, there were 7 unique ideas laid out on the table. The people in the room were buzzing with surprise as they tried to interpret what was added to their original idea. The art director was impressed that the room was able to take his idea to the next level as others busily discuss the potential of these new ideas.
“Thank you for accommodating my request. We’re now one step closer to cracking the brief. Let’s move on to selecting and refining these ideas,” Carl exclaimed with a wide grin on his face.
The team at Pixar building upon each other’s ideas for a scene in their 3D animated film, Monsters University.
Beyond mind mapping and brainstorming, there are more than a handful of ways we can generate ideas. Yet most companies and schools today continue to use traditional brainstorming as a means of coming up with ideas to tackle a problem. Brainstorming as a technique is over 60 years old and the passage of time has given rise to several innovative approaches to problem solving with ideation.
One of which is Design Thinking.
Design Thinking is a methodology that helps solve problems based on needs: emphasizing continuous learning and testing until an ideal solution is reached through several low-cost implementation or prototypes. The technique was evangelized by international design firm and innovation consultancy, IDEO, who were behind some of the most notable designs, including the first Apple mouse.
The application of Design Thinking extends beyond the realms of product design. The methodology is applicable to designing services or business innovation. DesignSingapore Council Executive Director, Jeffrey Ho, said, “We believe that Design Thinking when applied, has the ability to help Small Medium Enterprises (SME) here in Singapore innovate and increase business productivity.” As the national statutory board in charge of promoting and elevating Singapore as a design hub, DesignSingapore has been offering free advisory services to Singapore companies looking to gain a competitive advantage through branding or business innovation.
Atmosphere Air-conditioning and Engineering is in the business of air-conditioning servicing. The rising cost of fuel and vehicle prices has got its founder, Frederick Ang, to rethink how to deliver a more cost-effective solution to clients. Traditionally, air-conditioning servicing companies deploy a 2 man team in a van for on-site service and repairs. But through the discovery process of solving the problem with a design consultancy, Atmosphere’s team was able to design a modular system to fit all the equipment required into a 3-wheel motorcycle, effectively reducing the vehicle cost and manpower cost for deployments. The potential of this innovation does not stop at saving business costs. The proprietary modular system can now be re-sold to small repair services, including plumbing and electrical maintenance companies, thereby opening a new revenue stream for Ang’s business.
Similar business case studies can also be read from the Design for Enterprises News section.
The bankruptcy of Kodak and acquisition of Nokia’s mobile division teaches us that businesses that fail to innovate fail to stay in business. Hence, with success stories like Ang, DesignSingapore’s push for a design-centric approach to problem solving and business innovation in resource scarce Singapore is a justified means to support the nation’s agenda of improving productivity.
For the rest of us who are less concerned about creating business innovation, the value of introducing new methods of ideation in traditional brainstorming sessions can give wings to ideas and make these sessions less dreadful.
Overusing an ideation method could dampen creative energy, exhaust enthusiasm and lead to the death of fresh ideas.