Building Winning Products

Getting Brainstorming Right

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Issac Asimov is best known as an author of more than 500 books, but he was also a professor of biochemistry at Boston University who often worked on hard problems outside of academia and science fiction. In 1959, while working on a DARPA sponsored project, he wrote an essay on how people get new ideas.

The section that caught my attention involved how to get the most out of people working together on a problem. While Asimov held that ‘isolation is required’ as a key ingredient in creative work, he also felt that if you had the right folks available, ‘a meeting of such people may be desirable’.

Desirable for what I wondered? Thankfully, he continued.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

For most organizations, the point of brainstorming is explicitly ‘idea generation’, but his view is more nuanced. Further, he goes on to explain how such sessions should be structured to increase their odds of success.

  1. “There must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness.” “Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence” (Casual)

  2. “All people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.” (Playful)

  3. "If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience” (Equal)

  4. “The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five.” (Small)

  5. “I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room” (Relaxed Setting)

  6. “The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas…the great ideas came as side issues” (Lack of Guilty Responsibility)

  7. “I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided. There must be someone in charge who plays a role equivalent to that of a psychoanalyst” (Expert Facilitation)

It seems to me, if you’re leading a brainstorming session, you could do worse than to keep Asimov’s ideas in mind. I’d also encourage you to read the entire essay as the beginning includes some insights around becoming the type of person who makes novel discoveries.