What We Can Learn From a Mediocre Brainstorm

4 Dec

When brainstorming goes well, it feels like flying. You and your teammates produce copious amounts of ideas, many of which provide new and unexpected insights or potential solutions your current challenge. You are energized to start trying out multiple of these ideas immediately.

Every so often, however, the ideas produced don’t seem quite so sparkling or magical. One reason might be the team’s or your own emotional state…is your energy low? Was your team energy building off one another? Was someone not suspending judgement? But if the team is working well together and still the ideas that come out of the brainstorm seem lackluster, it might be a sign that you’re not yet solving the right problem and have more problem-finding to do.

At our last RAD Workshop, we had an uneven number of participants. So I jumped in to fill out the number of pairs. I am taking a required class this quarter that is difficult and not particularly relevant to my research. It is also taking a frustrating amount of time away from the qualifying proposal that is my real priority this autumn. Thus the problem I selected for ideation was “How can I pass Class X while minimizing the time it takes?”

The initial ideas in the team brainstorming were mostly unethical and clearly infeasible…cheat, date the TA, find previous exams. The only sensible solutions were obvious ones that didn’t add much to my understanding of the situation…get help, find a tutor. Looking at the ideas after the brainstorming time was up, the only one that seemed to hold any promise was “incorporate the class into your RAD work.”

As I started to think about how to prototype this idea, I realized that the way I had framed the problem for this brainstorming session had obviously failed to stimulate our creativity. So instead of moving on to prototyping, I decided to take a step back and re-define my problem.

Thinking about the idea of incorporating Class X into the RAD project, I realized that this idea appealed because it suggested that there might be a way I could learn other useful things from the required course than the content it is ostensibly meant to be teaching me. Bingo. Moving from the specific idea to the general formulation of the problem it suggested, I realized I could re-frame my challenge to be “What can I learn or gain from taking Class X besides the content it covers?” or similarly “How can I make the experience of taking Class X useful to my research agenda or personal life?”

This second prompt proved to be much more amenable to good brainstorming. Ideating about how to make the required class useful suggested ideas like using this problem as a RAD case study (as I’m doing in this blog post) or as an exercise in serenity/acceptance or as practice at doing just the minimum necessary work (quite a challenge for an admitted perfectionist).

As this example shows, a mediocre brainstorm can be a sign that your problem still needs additional re-framing.

What else might we learn from a mediocre brainstorm? How about from a disappointing experience at other phases of the design process?

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