Brainstorming is a bad idea (yet again)?

I love these articles – I blogged about this in response to articles a couple of times (here  and here) and the issue is always the same. They refer to brainstorming as “throwing a bunch of people in a room and letting them come up with ideas”.

Of course this is ineffective. How could it be otherwise? Would you expect to throw a bunch of programmers in a room with no process and expect good results? How about throwing a bunch of kids on a field with no structure and expecting them to be a football team?

Without a process and without structure, any group collaboration will fail.

I maintain, however, that brainstorming can be effective, when done in a structured and facilitated manner. At some point I will have to throw together some references on this, because I have seen them, but I think to say that “brainstorming is a waste of time” just because unstructured brainstorming with no process is ineffective is completely unfounded.

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But I want to be Disruptive!

I have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of years thinking about the process of innovation, different types of innovation, and how to innovate in a small but established organization versus a startup organization. I was reading Innovator’s Dilemmas: Do You Really Need To Be Disruptive? over on consultaglobal this weekend, and got to comparing some of Jose’s thoughts with work I have done in the last year.

As Jose says in that post, he is more interested in the process of defining a product roadmap in terms of gradual innovation, and in managing product portfolios. We have been very successful with this type of innovation, having a strong product management process for our existing product suite. In my role, I have been more interested in how we do larger scale innovation – how do we come up with the innovations now which are going to drive our growth 2+ years from now?

I have defined an innovation cycle as shown below.

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Recognizing that disruptive innovation is, well, disruptive, as this cycle is traveled counter-clockwise starting from the upper right, we go from a high-chaos, low-process environment to progressively higher process and lower chaos.

In this model, the upper right quadrant represents what we are really good at, evolutionary innovation driven by product management.  The upper right quadrant represents the starting point – the idea generation engine. This is traditionally a hit and miss process of collecting ideas from various parts of the organization (or just a few people), and trying to pick which ones to invest time and money in. It is my belief that this activity can be wrapped in a process without destroying the creativity needed to really come up with ideas. Among the activities I consider important in this quadrant are:

  • Establish some context for innovation (see this earlier post)
  • Get ideas from everybody, not just R&D or Product Management
  • Get out and talk to customers
  • Involve your staff who are in front of customers, especially professional services people if you have them
  • Engage in structured/facilitated brainstorming with groups from various cross-sections of your company
  • Know how you are going evaluate ideas and decide which ones to investigate more deeply

The last point is important – it is no use having lots of ideas if you have no way to evaluate them. No organization can go deep on all the ideas generated, and a small organization can only really attack a couple. See this earlier post for my thoughts on using the Needs, Approach, Benefits, Competition (NABC) approach. At the end of this stage, and ideas should have a reasonable Needs definition, with a rough indication of the other three categories.

The next quadrant is what I have called Play. This is where ideas which survive the evaluation in the Ideas stage and start to play with them, flesh them out, create prototypes, and generally move the NABC definition forward. Early in this phase, the Approach needs to be clarified, while the Needs are evaluated more deeply.  Later in this stage, if a viable Approach is identified, and the Needs continue to make sense, then the Benefits and Competition need to be addressed (note that in reality, it is never anywhere near this linear, but this is for the benefit of description). By the end of this stage, we should be able to present a fairly strong value proposition for those ideas which have survived the process.

The next stage is to Build the products (ok, probably only one) for which the value proposition seems best. I will not get into the build process, except to say that the NABC analysis should be kept at the forefront throughout the process, and not be afraid to make hard decisions if things stop making sense.

The final stage is the Evolution stage, where the product moves into the incremental, evolutionary development cycle of a completed product. Note that for a new product, there may be some iteration between Build and Evolve.

Finally, the cycle is closed by having ideas from ongoing product evolution feed back into the Ideas stage.

So, is it ever this neat and clean and linear? Well, no. But that does not mean it is not valuable to have a model which you at least pretend you are following!

Brainstorming is a bad idea? (again)

It is amazing how a single post by the right person can stir up so much commentary. The latest I have read is One head is better than two or more. As Patricia pointed out in a comment to my previous post on this, The Medici Effect author also goes on to say:

“So, should we all stop brainstorming? I don’t think so. Done right, brainstorming is a highly effective way to actively generate intersectional ideas.”

Brainstorming, like any other human-centric activity, needs a process. Throwing a bunch of people into a room and saying “create brilliant ideas” is not an effective process. To me, this is analagous to putting a bunch of programmers in a room with no process and saying “create a wonderful product” (though admittedly, I have seen a fair number of companies try to do software development this way!). Similarly, badly run, pointless meetings with no clear purpose, and no process, do indeed make us collectively dumber.

Anyone who has ever been on an over-acheiving team (work, sports, or otherwise) knows from experience that the right team, working together with an effective process, can achieve things that none of the individuals could come close to working seperately.

Undertaking any group activity, whether brainstorming, software development, or running a business with no process or a bad process will indeed frequently lead to the result that working alone is more productive and more satisfying than working in a group. Does that mean you stop the activity? No, it means you fix the process.

Brainstorming is a bad idea?

Looking at the quote on Marc Andreessen’s blog post Why brainstorming is a bad idea, I am forced to concede to the evidence presented, even though I am a big fan of group brainstorming. I wonder, though, if similar studies/experiments have been performed using what I refer to as “structured brainstorming”, meaning (to me) group brainstorming using tools/techniques/games designed to drive idea generation? I wonder if the results would differ?

Playing to the critics

This is a follow-on post to my earlier discussion of New Product Ideas – How hard can it be?. In that post I talked a bit about what I consider to be the “fundamental” questions in coming up with a new business idea:

  1. What do you want to be (multinational, micro-ISV, etc.)?
  2. What domain do you want to work in (horizontal apps, specific vertical, specific technology, etc.)?

I also promised to discuss, in a later post, what do once you have figured out these two simple questions. Sorry it has taken so long to get back to this.

Getting Ideas

So now you know what kind of a business you want to build, and you have an idea of the space you want to be in. Where do you go from here? A quick Google found several hits with suggestions for generating new product ideas. Here are a few (I am not endorsing any of them – they are just a few from the first page of hits ):

There are a few random thoughts that I have on the subject. A big one to me is the fact that you cannot spend all of your time “playing to the critics” (hence the title of this post). In the software world, playing to the critics means, among other things, trying to do what the analysts and marketing gurus and other “experts” say you should. I am not saying you should not read and absorb as much as you can from these sources, and indeed from any source you can. However, the ideas ultimately have to come from you – they cannot be analysed into existence, and you can wait for someone else to tell you what to do.

So where do ideas come from? Well, getting ideas is like anything else. It takes practice, and the more you practice doing it, the easier it gets. Here are a few of the approaches I use:

  • Keep a notebook for ideas (I know, everyone suggests this). I personally use my Tablet PC for this, using a combination of OneNote and Mindjet. I like this because I typically have my Tablet with me all the time, and it allows me to capture ideas I get anytime and anywhere – in meetings, seminars, anywhere.
  • Set aside time for brainstorming. Whether it is daily or weekly or whatever, it is good to set aside time brainstorm. It will be hard at first, but it gets easier with time. I will admit that sometimes this is my best approach for getting ideas. Other times, ideas come at me so fast using the first method that I do not really need to set aside time for this. I try to anyway.
  • Read as much as you can. Learn new things as much as you can. Read anything. Read web sites. Read blogs. Read books. Read magazines. Read things in your area of expertise. Read things in other areas (I find many of my most novel ideas come from “cross-over” concepts that I pick up). Read, read, read, read.

Ultimately, these are approaches that work for me. You will have to find ways that work for you. Back before my Tablet PC, I used to keep several flipchart pads on the wall of my office. I would fill these with ideas, tear off the pages and tape them up all over my walls.

An important thing to remember is not to filter or judge your ideas at the same time you are generating them. Just collect them. Also remember, the best way to get good ideas is to get LOTS of ideas.

Evaluating Ideas

Speaking of this, how do you know which ideas are good ones, and which ones are, well, not?

I try to set aside a regular time every week or two to look through my accumulated ideas. When evaluating my ideas, I look at several things.

Firstly, I filter out the ideas that are just plain stupid. This is hard to do sometimes, because I do not generally like to admit to myself that I have stupid ideas. But I do! Lots of them. Sometimes I look back on ideas I came up with randomly in meetings a couple of weeks earlier, and I really have no idea what I was thinking. Do not dismiss things too easily, though, because sometimes what seems like a crazy idea just seems crazy because it is for something really original. I never throw ideas away – and sometimes ideas on the crazy list come back to life.

Secondly, I compare ideas against the “what I want to be” questions. This allows me to eliminate ideas that are just completely out of scope for what I am trying to do. Some ideas are great ideas, but just do not fit the scope of what I am trying to do. Again, I never throw them away. Maybe next year, I will have changed my mind on what I want to be. Or maybe I will come up with a way to change the scope of the idea and make it fit.

Finally, I am left with a list with a list of ideas which are not obviously crazy, and which seem to fit the model of what I want to do. What next? Well, some time back I posted on here about exactly that. It all comes back to NABC:

  • Does the idea fulfill a real need?
  • Do I have a credible approach?
  • What is the benefit versus cost of the idea?
  • Who are the competitors? What are the competing approaches?

Personally, I still find this the hardest part of the problem. Right now, the approach I use is to transfer all the “surviving” ideas to a spreadsheet, with columns for each of NABC. I start by quickly going through and filling out what I already know for each idea. For some, I understand what need I want to fill. For others, I have come up with a really great approach to filling a not very well defined need (hey – I AM a techie afterall!). This is just a way of capturing what I already know, so it does not take very long. Then I go back and try to complete the need for all of the ideas. This is always enlightening – it still surprises me how hard it is to succinctly express the need fulfilled by an idea, even when I think I know it.

Ultimately, at this stage, I am trying to identify those ideas for which I CANNOT have some answer to the four questions. This filters out a good chunk of ideas at this stage – many seemingly good ideas do not pass this gate.

So what next? Well, the ideas which survive this initial analysis are worth taking a deeper look at. And that will have to wait for another post – hey, it is 1 in the morning!

New Product Ideas – How hard can it be?

Ok, the title of this post is a joke. I know that new product idea generation is never easy.

Actually, I do not think that is quite true. Coming up with ideas is sometimes not all that hard – sometimes it seems like I come up with ideas faster than I can write them down, or even think about them. The real trick is coming up with good ideas, or being able to recognize the good ones form the piles of ideas in which they are buried. This, in my opinion, is the big challenge in developing a defined innovation process – how do you take this idea generation, selection, and development process more predictable and less serendipitous.

In the past, most of my efforts in this area have been within the context of an employer. This is important, because in general, this provides constraints on where you go with your ideas. For example, if you are working within a vertically targeted software company, your idea-generation efforts typically work within that vertical, and even more tightly, close to your niche area within that vertical (this is not always a good thing, it just seems to be true). If by chance you get the opportunity to take your efforts into a new vertical, you are still constrained. Typically, you will be trying to leverage what you are successful at in one vertical, and trying to replicate that success in another vertical. I am not claiming that any of this is easy, but it is not what I want to talk about in this post.

What I am thinking about right now is the challenge of starting from scratch. Here you are, on your own (alone or with a group), with no particular historical context, you have a wide-open, blue sky ahead of you. Well, where do you start? How do you decide where to begin? How do you narrow down the playing field, and how do you pick ideas to tackle (wouldn’t be nice to be able to try all of your ideas)?

To me it all starts with “what do you want to be”? What is your vision for the company you want to create? Do you want to follow the Micro ISV model, and start a company which will only be you (or at most a few of you)? Do you want to start a company which you envision will develop into a small software company, but bigger than an ISV? Or, do you want to go all the way and build the next 800 lb gorilla? Or do you have a completely different business model in mind (remember, innovation can be found in a business model as much as in a technology). This decision is vital to picking your ideas. Some ideas just will not work in some models – or at the very least will have great challenges. Unless you have a pretty good idea of where you are going, it is tough to identify an idea which will get you there. As one of my physics professors taught us “never start a problem until you have some idea what the answer looks like – otherwise you will not know when you get there”.

A second big piece of the puzzle is “what do you know how to do/what do you like to do”. Obviously, if you want to develop a useful (and hence successful) product, you need to either possess or develop a deep expertise in the relevant field. This is especially important if you are developing a vertically oriented product. Breaking into a new vertical is a huge challenge even for an established, successful company. As a start up, trying to develop a product while learning about the vertical is just making your task harder. So, if you can, it pays to attack a space you already know. That being said, you may have an idea which is so compelling that you want to attack a space you do not know well. In that case you will just need to acquire the expertise you are missing – learn it, buy it, whatever you have to do. The other side of this question is what do you like to do. No matter how good your idea is, taking it from idea to successful company is going to take an enormous amount of work. Your chances of success will be greatly improved if you are doing something for which you have a passion. Can you be successful doing something you hate? Yeah, sure. But, given the choice, why would you?

So, once you have figured out these simple questions, what next? Well, I will take that up in another post.

Assessments of various blogging options.

This discussion of various Blogging Platforms looks interesting, and very timely for me. I am currently evaluating platforms to use (internally) for blogging within my company as a collaboration and idea exchange tool (external blogs may or may not come later). As a part of an overall innovation program, I think internal blogs will be very useful – even within a relatively small company it is really easy to be completely unaware of cool things others are working on.

I also love the Mind Map in that post – I use mind maps everywhere, and love to see others using them.