Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne

Harper Business, 237 pages, $ 29.99


What if our general approach to brainstorming was all wrong?

That challenge is posed by Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne in Brainsteering. The brothers – Kevin, who used to be with McKinsey & Company, teaches at Emory University, while Shawn is a management consultant – note that a parade of studies over the years has shown that traditional brainstorming is both an ineffective and inefficient method for developing good ideas. Indeed, a leader would be better off to simply gather his team, inform them of the ideation goals, and then send each member off to separate rooms to work alone for the same length of time they would have spent in a group session.

So much for the power of the group. And that shouldn’t surprise us if we have ever been in a room of 20 people brainstorming – that is, three people developing ideas and 17 people watching. Or in a room where 19 people kept their mouths shut after the boss advanced his pet notion yet again or leaped upon a horrid idea.

That’s how the brainstorming process goes wrong. But the Coynes also say we get the focal point of brainsteering sessions wrong by failing to ask the right question.

In most brainstormings we try to open up our thinking widely. We invite everyone to think outside the box. But, the Coynes argue, we have to give everyone a box, a framework, within which to be creative. The key is to find the right box in which to think.

Rod Canion, Bill Murto and Jim Harris managed that in 1981. The three Texas Instruments executives met over lunch and asked themselves a single question: how could we design an IBM compatible computer that would fit into the overhead bin of an airplane? By the end of the lunch, they had figured out the design requirements for an easily portable personal computer, and set the foundation for a new company they would create, Compaq, which quickly soared to $1 billion U.S. in sales.

The authors offer other examples, drawn from business, but inspiring nevertheless for government executives. Indeed, they studied 42 other start-ups that rocketed from zero sales or modest sales to $1 billion four years later, and found that 41 of them were based on a single concept. “In many cases, the company’s breakthrough idea was literally the result of answering a single, specific question – the Right Question _ at the outset. But much more important, we discovered that in every case, there was at least one Right Question that, had you asked it at the right time and place, would have revealed the Billion-Dollar Idea to you,” they write.

The power of asking a Right Question can be shown by taking three examples of products we are all familiar with: Rollerblades, Haagen Dazs ice cream, and the Batman movies. Those may not have much of a tangible connection, but each is the answer to the following question: how might we take something that was emotionally powerful for people as children and reproduce it in a more exotic – and expensive – form for adults? That question was probably not specifically asked by the founders of those companies, the authors stress, but if asked might have led to those companies as well as successful purveyors of $2 gourmet cookies, $5-a-pound jelly beans, and $100 sneakers.

The fact somebody else has used a question doesn’t preclude you from trying it on for size as well. You will probably come up with a different take on it. And the questions don’t have to be about starting a business – you can easily devise some for your own operation. Here are some from the book that might work:

  • Who (or what) “does our thing” best in all the world, and how could we adapt their practices to our circumstances?
  • What’s the biggest (avoidable) hassle that clients have to put up with?
  • How would it change if our service was tailored for every client?
  • What complexity do we plan for every day that, if eliminated, could change the way we operate?
  • What can we do to consolidate or restructure the jobs of any less than fully busy people?
  • If we assume we should be able to reduce the number of hours devoted to supervision by about 10 percent in each year so that the duties of a given organization remain largely unchanged (so long as there has been little turnover), which organizations could have their spans of control widened?
  • How is our workload shaped by the existence of other groups outside our organization? Do their arbitrary deadlines and requirements unnecessarily increase our workload?
  • Where do we still use people to process routine forms or information, rather than have it done electronically without human intervention?

But it takes more than a right question. You also need a right process. In brainsteering, that will involve breaking up the usual group of 10 to 20 participants into subgroups composed of three to five people. Each subgroup will then focus on developing ideas using a single question that you assign, and stick with that task for 20 to 45 minutes. The members don’t stop early, but must continue to press for ideas until the end of their allotted timeframe, since often the best ideas come after the obvious suggestions have initially poured out.

The subgroup then moves on to another question, and then another, for about five or six rounds, at which point they are probably exhausted but also have come up with some viable ideas for your organization. They remove the weakest ideas, but don’t make any decisions on the better ones. Instead, immediately after the session the key managers meet, make decisions on what actions will be taken, and promptly communicate those decisions back to the workshop participants.

Planning for the session starts with selecting enough questions to handle all the ideation sessions that will occur, given the number of participants and available time. Rank them from best to worst, and consider whether it’s better to have any subgroups work with your worst questions or have more subgroups tackle the best questions.

In inviting participants, the authors urge you to pick the individuals who can answer the questions you plan to ask, and who have the mental orientation to translate their answers into ideas. The subgroups themselves should be limited to five people. When you have more than that, the social dynamics work against everyone speaking, and most people are hushed. But in groups of five or fewer, the social dynamics work differently: the norm is to speak up. “No one can hide, no one can fail to contribute without appearing to be a slacker, and no two people can drift off into irrelevant side conversation without appearing rude to other group members,” they write.

It’s also important to set expectations properly at the start of the day: each individual ideation session will probably only produce two or three worthy ideas. For most people, getting just two or three ideas after 20 to 35 minutes feels like failure, but you need them to view it as success.

Just as important, the session feels like failure if you don’t do your job: start to act on the ideas immediately after the session, and let people know that some of the ideas are bearing fruit. Nobody expects all the ideas to be used, the authors stress, but they do expect some to be implemented.

I injected some of these ideas into some recent brainstorming I facilitated, and was impressed with the results. Interestingly, where I varied from the brainsteering formula, I sensed that I hurt rather than helped the session. You may also want to read the book, and experiment with the approach.