A CONVERSATION WITH KEVIN AND SHAWN COYNE, AUTHORS OF BRAINSTEERING
1. We’re all familiar with the concept of brainstorming, but what is “Brainsteering?” How can it help my organization solve problems or generate ideas?
In many ways, Brainsteering is the exact opposite of brainstorming – both approaches are designed to help you generate ideas, but the way they do it is 180-degrees different. Brainstorming is an unfocused activity that takes people’s creative energy and scatters it in all directions, rarely producing breakthrough ideas. Meanwhile, Brainsteering takes people’s creative energy and steers it in a consistently productive direction by following two key principles. First, by asking what we call the Right Questions, people are able to approach their ideation challenge from a different perspective than ever before. Second, by using what we call the Right Process, people are able to add just enough structure to the process to focus their efforts. Following these two principles has consistently helped people come up with ideas they could never previously have imagined.
2. Why do so many people and organizations rely on brainstorming, even though numerous studies have proven that it just doesn’t work? What do those studies reveal about the ineffectiveness of brainstorming?
For most people, brainstorming is the only ideation technique they know, because for the past 60 years, brainstorming has been the primary idea generation approach taught by, and used in, organizations ranging from business schools to Fortune 500 companies to not-for-profits. Maybe people continue to employ brainstorming because it’s easy to learn and it seems like it would be fun to “just go for it!” and “think without constraints!” – but what’s not fun is that traditional brainstorming is highly ineffective and inefficient. In fact, decades of studies have shown that, if the leader of a traditional brainstorming session wanted to generate more and better ideas, they would actually be better off gathering their team members together, telling them their objectives, and then sending them all off to work alone in separate rooms!
3. You state that you don’t just believe anyone can be creative, you know anyone can be creative if they follow the Brainsteering approach. Why is that?
Because we’ve seen it work for more than a decade in over 200 different situations in over 150 different organizations. It’s worked for centuries-old Fortune 500 companies, brand new start-ups, and not-for profit organizations large and small. It’s worked for CEOs, sales forces, marketing gurus, finance and accounting wizards, magazine editors, telephone operators, bill collectors, and homemakers. It’s worked for...well, you get the picture.
4. Your book includes scores of examples and anecdotes, taken from both the business world and popular culture. Why didn’t you stick purely with business-related stories?
Actually, we did that for two reasons. First, even a business reader likes to be entertained now and then! Second, we wanted to show readers that the principles and techniques of Brainsteering can be used successfully in any setting whatsoever – whether you’re at work or at home, whether you’re working individually or in teams, and so on.
5. What’s an example of how we can apply Brainsteering to common situations in our everyday lives outside the office?
You can apply Brainsteering to develop movie scripts, write song lyrics, or create an innovative theme for anything from your twins’ birthday party to the next fundraiser for your church or your child’s high school marching band. One of our favorite everyday applications – which we describe in detail in the book – is using Brainsteering to find the perfect gift for your spouse or some other loved one, even though you’ve already bought so many gifts for them over the years that you’ve completely run out of ideas.
6. Most people focus on seeking the right answers. But Brainsteering requires you to ask the right questions. How does asking the right questions help generate great ideas?
Asking the Right Questions forces you to focus your thinking, and to look at your ideation problem from a different angle than you ever have before – and once you ask the Right Questions, you’ll find that right answers begin to flow fairly quickly. So, for example, instead of asking an overly-broad wrong question like, “How can we increase profits?” – at which point the mind reels with possibilities, doesn’t know where to focus, and wears out quickly – ask yourself a more focused Right Question like, “What’s the biggest hassle customers face when using products/services in our category, and how could we eliminate that hassle (in ways that others haven’t done already)?”
7. You advocate that many of the long held beliefs about problem-solving are untrue, such as “thinking outside the box”. Why is “thinking inside the box” a better approach?
Research shows that when people are told, “Go wild! There are no constraints! Think outside the box!”, they quickly become overwhelmed by the infinite scope of the task. Where should they focus their attention? How long should they think about ideas in one area before looking in a different area? What even constitutes a good idea?! What’s more, assuming that “there are no constraints” is crazy, because every real life situation comes with many, very real constraints. By acknowledging any legitimate constraints up front, focusing their ideation efforts in a specific direction, and sticking with that direction until their initial (probably mediocre) ideas are refined into great ideas – that is, by thinking inside a very carefully designed box that’s not too big and not too small – people are much more comfortable, and much more likely to think of truly great ideas.
8. Clearly, there are bad ideas, and you attest in the book that most of them are the end result of trying to come up with good ideas...in the wrong way. Where do people or organizations typically go wrong?
They typically go wrong by assuming that people will think of better ideas if they have no constraints – hence the old bromide, “There are no bad ideas! Don’t stifle your creativity by over-analyzing – just keep popping out ideas, and before you know it you’ll have a great one!” The fact is, there are lots of bad ideas – including any idea that doesn’t acknowledge the legitimate constraints you face (whether they involve time, money, organizational assets and skills, or anything else) – and you shouldn’t waste your time on them. There are also ideas that could work within your constraints but just aren’t very powerful – in which case you need to combine creativity with analysis to sort the bad ones from the good ones, and to refine the good ones into great ones. You’ll know you’ve got a great idea when it meets three simple tests: it’s demonstrably different from current ideas, it’s highly valuable in a way that you can clearly articulate (and preferably measure), and there’s a sizeable sub-segment of the population who should immediately find it virtually irresistible.
9. You say that Brainsteering requires a systematic approach in order to scan the entire universe of potential questions when solving a problem or making a decision, rather than simply selecting only a few. How can you develop that approach simply and effectively?
Actually, you can often come up with a surprisingly good idea or two just by asking yourself a few well-chosen Right Questions! But if you need many ideas, or the very best idea, or an idea that literally no one has ever thought of, then you should do a systematic scan of all the potential angles from which to develop Right Questions associated with your topic. We recommend using a simple and effective tool called Logic Trees to help you scour the full range of possibilities. In constructing a Logic Tree, you take an initial question and break it down into sub-questions that collectively “cover the waterfront” with no gaps and no overlaps. Then you break down those sub-questions into more sub-questions, and so on. By the time your tree reaches the third, fourth or fifth layer, you’ll have so many potential angles to consider that you’re bound to come up with a great idea.
10. Brainstorming sessions typically involve a lot of people, while Brainsteering can be done in very small groups...or even alone. How is Brainsteering different? How are great ideas generated from such small groups?
Brainsteering’s approach of asking the Right Questions and using the Right Process really will help you come up with great ideas, even if you’re working all by yourself. When you’re working in a group setting, it can be even more powerful – especially if you pay extra attention to using the Right Process. The key is to let social norms work for you instead of against you. For example, instead of working in a single large group of 20 people – where three pushy people usually dominate the conversation and 17 people sit idle, saying nothing – break that group down into five smaller sub-groups of four people each, where everyone is much more willing, and able, to speak up. The usual result is that the same total number of people, working simultaneously for the same total length of time, come up with five times as many ideas.
11. You argue that one of the least productive debates about how best to develop new ideas is the false dichotomy that’s often drawn between “being creative” and “being analytical”. What’s wrong with the assertion that people cannot be both creative and analytical at the same time?
First, that assertion implies that people are only capable of using half their brain – which is nonsense! Second, that assertion implies that creativity and analytics are opposing forces that somehow work against each other – when in fact, they can be used as complementary forces that work with each other to produce better ideas. For example, analysis can help you evaluate whether your ideas are good or bad, and help you refine the good ones to make them great. In addition, a well-constructed analysis that looks at things from an unusual perspective will often lead you to identify whole new categories of ideas that you had never even thought of before.
12. Which companies have used Brainsteering techniques to create new products or generate growth? How effective was it for them?
All kinds of organizations, from Fortune 500 companies to small start-ups to not-for-profits, have used Brainsteering techniques to create new products or services. One of our favorite examples is the U.S. Postal Service, which asked the Right Question, “What’s the biggest hassle our customers face when buying stamps?” and realized that Americans were always worried about postage rate increases making their current stamps obsolete (and they also hated having to make extra trips to the post office to buy extra one- and two-cent stamps!). So they created the Forever Stamp, which covers the postage for a First Class letter whenever it may be used in the future, regardless of what level the rate may have risen to by that time. The USPS has sold billions of dollars worth of Forever Stamps since their introduction – and saved millions of customers from making frustrating, unnecessary trips to the post office.
13. How does Brainsteering help me solve my customers’ problems?
Brainsteering helps you solve your customers’ problems in large part because so many of the best Right Questions force you to adopt the perspective of those customers. Of the more-than-100 illustrative Right Questions we use in the book, dozens of them include phrases like, “Which of our customers want/need/use/do/have never done/would benefit from ...?”
14. In the book you explain how certain organizations can create “Idea Factories” to consistently generate great ideas. What are some examples of “Idea Factories”, and how do they work?
Certain organizations don’t just need a few great ideas – they need dozens, all the time. For example, a weekly newsmagazine we worked with needs to publish 22 great stories every week, 52 weeks a year; the writers of Desperate Housewives need to crank out 60 minutes of wild plot twists by 9 o’clock every Sunday night; and the product development gurus at Procter & Gamble need to introduce new, improved formulas or packages for dozens of consumer products every month, year after year. These organizations, which we call “Idea Factories”, have to be do five things – which we detail in the book – to create a virtually endless stream of ideas: (1) formalize the ideation process; (2) expand their sources of Right Questions; (3) institutionalize their inventory of Right Questions; (4) avoid falling into unhealthy patterns or ruts; and (5) periodically rejuvenate their entire system.
15. You suggest that in order to create new ideas, it helps to seek out new sources – that is, not only looking within your own organization’s history but looking at what other companies and your competitors have done. Are you implying that it’s okay to steal good ideas from others?
Figuratively speaking, yes! Businesses do it all the time, Hollywood does it all the time, and you should do it all the time. If an idea has worked in one context, ask yourself how you might make it work (with appropriate modifications) in your context as well. But if you want to be really successful, don’t just steal other people’s ideas – steal their Right Questions. For example, don’t just copy their product’s newest feature; instead, figure out what Right Questions might have led them to create that feature, then ask yourself those questions and see what features you can create that would make your new product even better than theirs.
16. How do you ensure that the Brainsteering approach is being used throughout your organization? What are some key tips for teaching its methods to higher level managers or junior staff?
When introducing Brainsteering into an organization, your first step should be to get early buy-in at a conceptual level from the higher level managers. For example, we’re typically able to accomplish this via a quick, two-hour orientation that includes a “live” demonstration of certain key Brainsteering techniques, during which the managers are usually surprised at just how many good ideas they are able to come up with in a very short time. Once you have the support of the higher-ups, the keys to successfully rolling out the approach throughout the organization, including its junior staffers, are: (1) establish a commonly understood definition of what constitutes “good ideas” in your organization, so junior staffers can recognize success (or failure) when they see it; (2) teach them the Brainsteering approach in manageable steps, beginning with the basics of Right Questions and adding subtleties from there; (3) delegate responsibilities to the junior staffers appropriately, building their experience and confidence (yet controlling your risk) as they come up the learning curve; and (4) overcome your built-in reluctance to providing feedback to so-called “creative types” – there really are bad ideas out there, and if you don’t tell a junior staffer when and how he’s missed the mark, you can’t expect him to improve.
17. What are some of the Right Questions I can ask about cutting costs or generating more sales? Or even picking out the perfect gift for someone?
The key to Right Questions in any situation is finding ones that cause you to look at your challenge from a different or more specific angle than you have in the past. For example, instead of just asking, “How can I cut costs?”, try asking, “Where is there a significant disparity between the cost of handling the routine first 90% of items we deal with, and the exceptional last 10%, and what would it take to eliminate those exceptional items?” If you’re looking to boost sales, try asking, “What information do we not collect in the sales process (or do we collect but not use in our product development process) that could help us design our product to better meet the needs of certain segments of customers?” Or if you’re looking for the perfect gift for someone, try asking, “What place, person, or group of people were they once very fond of, but have they since lost touch with – and what can I do to re-kindle those memories or relationships?”
18. What are some examples in the news of companies or people that could benefit from Brainsteering?
Examples are everywhere! In the coming months, the Pentagon could use Brainsteering to help them identify specific ideas for projects that will deliver the $100 billion in cost savings they’ve committed to achieve over the next five years; the marketers at Apple could use Brainsteering to determine how to maintain the company’s image (and stock price) while Steve Jobs is out on medical leave; and Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson could use Brainsteering to develop PR strategies for resuscitating their careers!
19. Why is Brainsteering more important now than ever before? Are there new trends that are making it essential?
In today’s business environment, where competition continues to become more global, product life cycles continue to get shorter by the minute, and old-fashioned sources of structural advantage (such as sheer scale, or access to natural resources) continue to erode, the most powerful and sustainable source of future prosperity is having more and better ideas. For example, Apple’s success over the past decade hasn’t been caused by its scale – it’s still far smaller than many other high-tech companies, with fewer employees, smaller capital budgets, etc. – it’s been caused by simply having more and better ideas than anyone else in its field. What’s more, if traditional brainstorming isn’t an effective or efficient way to consistently generate breakthrough ideas (a fact confirmed by decades of research), then it’s essential that people find a better approach – and that approach is Brainsteering.
20. What are some quick and simple next steps we can start taking tomorrow to start applying Brainsteering to our own business?
Here are two steps you can start taking tomorrow. First, every time you see an idea you admire – whether it’s a new product or service, a persuasive TV commercial, an improved business process, a brilliant cost-savings maneuver, or anything else – ask yourself, “What are three potential Right Questions that could have led me to come up with that idea?” Second, follow the Right Process by adding just enough structure to focus your efforts – that is, by clearly delineating your objectives, asking Right Questions targeted specifically toward those objectives, and then sticking with each of those questions long enough to turn your initial (probably mediocre) ideas into great ones.