For many people, brainstorming sessions are among their favorite work-related activities. And why not? They’re fun. Brainstorming product ideas with your peers is invigorating and energizing, and seems more like a game than just about any other part of the usual routine. Plus, at the end of a really heated session, you’ve got more ideas to work with that you ever thought possible. No wonder they feel so productive -- so downright important.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen many teams fall into this alluring trap. And we understand that brainstorming and whiteboarding can feel incredibly meaningful. But the truth is, these methods aren’t grounded in solving your customers’ real-life problems and struggles. They’re essentially placebos, and they’re taking your energy, time, and focus away from what really matters -- creating products that fill a need.
Haven’t you ever wondered why, after completing so many (seemingly) successful brainstorming sessions, you don’t have a bevy of winning products to show for it? It’s not because you aren’t smart or because you’re doing it wrong. According to science, brainstorming is an inherently flawed key to innovation. Columbia Business School professor William Duggan, an expert in intuition and innovation and the author of the book Creative Strategy, says that brainstorming methods are “as current as medical leeches and phrenology.” And, no matter how you tweak them, as he told Inc., "it's about as likely to lead you where you want to go as a map of a flat Earth.”
And that’s not just a theory. Turns out, brainstorming has been shown to be ineffective in practice as well. In the Harvard Business Review, Rivia co-founder Tom Agan shared the results of a 2014 consumer products study which found that “Firms that hold ideation sessions… generate little additional revenue from new offerings compared to those that don’t.” He adds: “Actually, coming up with an idea turns out to be relatively easy; refining a concept until it becomes an economic success is the hard part.” And it gets worse. “Not only might an ideation session fail to improve innovation, it can actually impede the process,” Agan says.
The fundamental -- and fatal -- flaw with brainstorming is that it’s an “ideas first” approach to innovation. It essentially amounts to stabbing around in the dark, or to throwing 1,000 strands of spaghetti at the wall and hoping against hope that one sticks. The better, more certain alternative? A needs first approach. This means identifying your customer’s needs by first and foremost understanding the job they would want to accomplish with your product. In other words, as Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt once famously said: People don’t want a quarter inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.
So don’t sit around trying to spin a passel of fantastical drill-type tools from whole cloth. Instead, think of the specific features of a tool that would make that quarter inch hole more effectively than any other tool. Create a tool that will remove every obstacle a customer might have when trying to drill their ideal quarter inch hole. That takes the luck out of innovation, and tilts the scale towards science and sound methodology.
“But wait,” you may be thinking. “This doesn’t apply to my team. We whiteboard our best ideas from our brainstorming sessions. That way, we know for sure that they’re legit, workable, and that our customers will love them.”
But let’s talk about what’s really going on with whiteboarding. At its most basic, here’s how it usually goes:
You or someone on your team has what feels like a great idea during a brainstorming session. Or maybe you dreamed it. To help others understand this idea, you or a team member whiteboard it. Meticulously. Now that you’ve committed it to a tangible format, it feels real. Everyone agrees: This is great. This will work. Our customers will love it. But there are some problems with way of thinking.
First of all, everyone is seeing something different. You’re all filling in the gaps in your own way, and while you all think you’re on the same page … you’re not. Everyone’s ideal product looks different in their mind’s eye. For another thing, this now-concrete idea only seems possible. You can’t know from a drawing, no matter how detailed that drawing is, if the idea is viable or feasible, much less desirable. The problems inherent in brainstorming -- ideas first innovating that doesn’t connect with the needs of your customers -- are still present. When you commit them to paper, they just feel more real.
In Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, Jake Knapp et al point out that, “To get trustworthy results in your test on Friday, you can’t ask your customers to use their imaginations. You’ve got to show them something realistic. If you do, their reactions will be genuine. How real is real enough? When you test your prototype on Friday, you’ll want your customers to react naturally and honestly. Show them something flimsy— a 'paper prototype' made up of drawings, or a simplified wireframe of your design— and the illusion will break.”
That word -- illusion -- is significant. Your customers won’t be fooled by an illusion masquerading as a product, and you shouldn’t be either. Low fidelity prototypes, wireframes, and drawings may seem real to you because you’re able to fill in the product gaps with your imagination. But those gaps are just that: products of your imagination. Whiteboarding is, at its core, an illusion of possibility. It isn’t tied to what’s do-able, and it definitely isn’t tied to what’s desirable.
So if brainstorming and whiteboarding aren’t producing the successful products you want, why continue with them hoping for a different result? Isn’t that the definition of insanity? It turns out that human nature is playing a role here. As University College of London business professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Ultimately, brainstorming continues to be used because it feels intuitively right to do so. As such, it is one more placebo in the talent management cabinet, believed to work in spite of the clear absence of evidence. So go ahead, schedule that brainstorming meeting. Just don’t expect it to accomplish much, other than making your team feel good.”
So brainstorming might feel good, but do you know what feels better? Creating winning products, that’s what. And that’s only possible if you take the guesswork and uncertainty out of innovation and look at problems through a needs-first, rather than an ideas-first, lens.