Brainstorming: Asking questions fuels problem-solving

When brainstorming sessions go wrong, it’s often because people assume the aim is to find answers

Brainstorming is hard enough when people are in the same room. Remote brainstorming is even harder, as many teams discovered during the pandemic

One of the main reasons bosses want people back in the office is because working from home has disrupted the natural collaborative process. Remote collaboration can work, but it’s often a poor substitute for the sparks of creativity that can fly when people are physically together.

But if remote brainstorming is the only option, then Karan Sonpar, professor of organisational behaviour at the UCD school of business, says it pays to lay down some ground rules to optimise the outcome. This starts with setting a clear agenda and sending it to participants in advance. It’s also important to have clear start and finish times, to restrict the number of participants and to ensure that whoever is leading the session deals firmly with overtalkative individuals to stop them dominating proceedings.

Once the housekeeping rules have been dealt with, Prof Sonpar says, the key issue is “making sure we are asking the right questions and explaining the rationale behind them. We often jump into problem-solving mode way too fast without framing the core issue or questions at hand,” he says. “Also, start with the shy and/or most junior people first. Otherwise, the highest paid person at the table will drive the agenda and the decisions.”

When brainstorming sessions go wrong, it’s often because people assume the aim is to find answers. Strictly speaking it is. But the way to get there is by asking good questions.

Hal Gregersen, a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at MIT, is a big fan of questions which he describes as, “positive, mind-opening prompts.” However, he also notes that those leading organisations often ask the questions but don’t get answers they really need because people are either telling them what they think they want to hear, or saying nothing because they fear the consequences of saying something they believe their boss won’t want to hear.

The same applies with brainstorming. Timid folk won’t say their piece, extroverts won’t shut up, quick-thinkers are spouting ideas faster than anyone can absorb them and those out to curry favour start pushing things in a direction they think their boss wants them to go. With all of this going on it’s not surprising that brainstorming gets a bad rap because there are times when it can feel chaotic and like a serious case of the unknowing leading the bewildered.

Probably the single biggest reason why a brainstorming session falls flat is down to a poorly articulated problem at the outset. Secondly, too much can be expected from a session because it’s confused with innovation when in fact it’s only one stage in the innovation process. Thirdly, putting people on the spot can create a real sense of panic and minds go blank. Fourthly, there’s something very intimidating about a pristine white board waiting for bright ideas.

Brainstorming has been the go-to technique for solving problems since the idea was first popularised in the 1930s by advertising executive Alex Osborn. In 1953, he put his thoughts on developing creative thinking down on paper in some detail in Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking, which subsequently became a textbook for American universities and part of management training at big companies such as General Electric.

In Osborn’s view, every idea is a good idea and it’s important not to criticise or jump to judgment too quickly when an idea is floated. Testing and evaluation can follow but this should be done independently, not by the person who came up with the suggestion because they have a vested interest.

Having watched brainstorming succeed and fail Hal Gregersen has developed his own methodology for the process, which he has used in consulting roles with numerous big blue chips including Danone, Disney and Salesforce. The inspiration for the model came when a session with his students at MIT became bogged down.

“After a lot of discussion, the energy level in the room was approaching nil and glancing at the clock, I resolved to at least give us a starting point for the next session,” he writes in the Harvard Business Review. Gregersen told his students to forget about finding answers and to come up with some new questions about the problem instead.

He got them to write down as many as they could in the time remaining and to his surprise, the room became energised. “Brainstorming for questions, not answers, wasn’t something I’d tried before,” he says. “It just occurred to me in that moment ... [but] underlying the approach is a broader recognition that fresh questions often beget novel, even transformative, insights.”

In rough terms, Gregersen’s approach involves bringing a small group together to address a problem. The session starts with a broad, open-ended overview of the issue followed by a “question burst” where people can ask as many question as they like in four minutes. They can only ask questions. No comments, interjections or responses are allowed and the aim is to produce about 15 questions in the time allowed.

This might sound simple enough but Gregersen says that as most leaders are paid to answer questions they find it extremely difficult not to jump in with answers during the four-minute burst. “The methodology I’ve developed is essentially a process for recasting problems in valuable new ways,” he says. “It helps people adopt a more creative habit of thinking and, when they’re looking for breakthroughs, it gives them a sense of control.”