One of the keys to success in any business lies in the ability to generate a tremendous amount of ideas, because when it comes down to it, almost every organization is, at heart, in the idea business. This is not a revolutionary concept. However, what often is overlooked—or simply misunderstood—is that the generation of great ideas is a numbers game. Businesses ostensibly are always looking for killer ideas that will boost profits and cut costs; ideas that streamline processes and maximize investments; and ideas that will have significant impact in the marketplace. To get to those killers, though, a business may have to cough up a mess of ideas that are ridiculous, budget busting, unusable, or simply awful.
A business that runs on the assumption that it will come up with a great idea exactly when it needs one is severely limiting, if not deluding, itself. That business is most likely achieving “greatness” by simply lowering the standard of what counts as great. The fact is, to get to unimpeachably great ideas—sharp, innovative, outright brilliant ones—you have to come up with an ugly pile of horrible ones, too (Osborn, Alex, “Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving,” 3rd ed., Creative Education Foundation Press, 1963). By way of analogy, think about the old process of gold panning. As you might remember from elementary school studies of the California Gold Rush, panning is the art of extracting gold from a river by scooping up sediment with a large pan. Panning is a sloppy, difficult process, and it can get results.
Jebediah, a hungry prospector on a quest for gold, might try to speed things up by avoiding the pan altogether and simply sticking his finger in the river in the hope that when he withdraws it from the water, it will be sporting a perfectly polished gold ring. But with that approach ol’ Jeb probably is going to end up with nothing more than a wet finger. If he takes a slightly more ambitious approach and grabs a fistful of river bottom, he’s probably going to end up a little wetter, and not much richer. Instead, if fortune-seeking Jeb knows his business, he’ll understand that he is going to have to use the biggest pan possible and invest some sweat equity, sieving through as much river muck and goo as he can to boost the probability of success. As Jeb pulls his pan through the water, he will not expect to come up with a panful of sparkly gold nuggets every time he sifts what he’s dredged up. He knows this is a longer process and he’s going to have to work his way through a heck of a lot of mud, slime, weeds, foul-smelling detritus, and even fool’s gold to find the small flecks of real treasure. He also knows that those raw flecks aren’t an end in themselves—all gold has to be refined to become truly valuable.
So it is with the process of group ideation, which we commonly refer to as brainstorming. Brainstorming is a process of communication and adaptive problem solving, and to the improvisational way of thinking, great brainstorming sessions are only possible when failure is not just tolerated, it’s welcomed (Catmull, Ed, “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity,” Harvard Business Review, September 2008, http://hbr.org/2008/09/how-pixar-fosters-collective -creativity/ar/1). Such sessions require everyone in the room to understand that sorting through clumps of mud and muck is a necessary part of the process in order to get to the prized gold. The fostering of failure is perhaps a bit counterintuitive in most corporate cultures, and failure itself is, of course, never the explicit objective. The point is that if a business truly encourages a “Yes, and…” approach to open communication and if the culture also embraces the possibility that great ideas can come from anyone and anywhere, then failures—dead-end ideas—are actually an indication of a vital and vibrant corporate culture (Rubinson, Joel, “Innovating Innovation: The Best Ideas Can Come from Anywhere,” Fast Company, June 16, 2009, http://www.fastcompany.com/1296086/innovating -innovation-best-ideas-can-come-anywhere). Just as in life outside the workplace, you can learn more from failure, and failure allows you to learn more from success. Even the most naturally talented musician does not first pick up a violin and instantly sound like a virtuoso. We understand that the young fiddler probably is going to sound fairly crappy for a while. There will be wrong notes and muffed passages—failures—on the way to musical excellence. A surfer who has never fallen off his board is either preternaturally gifted or has not actually put his board in the water. It is falling off the board (or the bike) that helps build technique and develop ability. A beautiful ride will be better appreciated when we are fully aware of the falls it took to get there. Within the improvisational workplace, failures can almost always be framed as steps toward success.
When it comes to ideation and brainstorming, a corporate culture is created through a focused application of the improv techniques: “Yes and-ing,” postponing judgment, choosing a constructive energy and attitude, and designing a well-managed process of divergent and convergent thinking based on accountability. These techniques can make all the difference in getting the individual members of a collaborative, brainstorming team to feel they’re being talked with rather than talked at—something that may sound small but actually can be the difference between a session that gets serious results and one of those meetings that merely creates the serious need for another meeting.
As I’ve stressed repeatedly and emphatically, effective improvisation is not some abstract, touchy-feely, let’s-hold-hands-and-skip-through-a-field-of-poppies philosophy, but is instead a simple, honest, results-driven approach to communication. This is especially true for ideation, during which the application of improv techniques should result not just in a roomful of smiley people but in a roomful of smiley people who have worked together to generate a usable, profitable, killer idea. How do you get to that great idea? I humbly submit the following guide for successful ideation—the Laws of Effective Brainstorming:
- Participate (or go home).
- Embrace “Yes, and…”
- Postpone judgment (for a specific period of time).
- Suspend critiquing and overanalyzing.
- Have fun and celebrate ridiculous ideas (remember, it’s about the number of ideas here).
- Stay energized and focused.
- Support every person in the group (100 percent participation, 100 percent engagement).
- Give and take the right to speak.
- Remain positive.
- Hold each other accountable to follow the rules.
Adapted from “Getting to “Yes, And”: The Art of Business Improv” by Bob Kulhan. (c) 2017 Robert Kulhan. All rights reserved. Published by Stanford University Press in hardback and electronic editions, sup.org. No further reproduction or distribution is allowed without the publisher’s prior permission.
Bob Kulhan is president, CEO, and founder of Business Improv, an innovative consultancy that specializes in experiential learning and serves an international roster of blue-chip firms. He is also an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. A performer with more than 20 years of stage credits, he has trained with a long list of legendary talents, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An actor and former core faculty member in Chicago’s famed Second City and a member of the resident company at the iO Theater, Kulhan is a co-founder of the Baby Wants Candy improv troupe. His work has been featured by such outlets as Big Think, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, the Financial Times, NPR, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal.