Monday, May 16, 2011

The Difference Between “Brainstorming” and N-of-8

Creative thinking is no longer a skill that’s nice to have. As innovation takes center stage in the business arena, organizations have begun to demand that their people think creatively. It is a vital capability for any company that wants to ensure it is on the cutting edge of its field or category.

Because I work for a creative company, I regularly find myself questioning the best ways for an organization to think creatively. But the truth is that all companies need to be creative and innovative (especially at times like this).  That’s why this is a topic which should interest anyone. It should not be considered the sole right and territory of people in the so-called creative industries.

To help their people think creatively, companies are always looking for tools, techniques, and processes designed to generate unique and effective outcomes. One tried and true creative thinking tool—brainstorming—is making a comeback in offices everywhere. Go to the Web and search “brainstorming” to find thousands of sites on the topic.

But there’s a difference between a brainstorming session and an N-of-8 experience.

If not conducted properly, a brainstorming session becomes chaotic and directionless, and thus viewed by the participants as a waste of time. But if you take the time to create an N-of-8 experience, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve in a short, focused time period.

One of the regular debates that come up in my world is balancing the need to treat and respect creativity of the individual with the power of group thinking to drive creativity. We all recognize that certain people are more blessed with powers of creative thinking than others.  This offers even more reasons to use an N-of-8 session instead of brainstorming.

When you call it innovation, instead of creativity, you open up the participants.
  • Creativity suggests an exclusive activity limited to people who can draw, who are artistic, and who are conspicuously right-brained.
  • Innovation is something to which anyone can contribute, as long as they are committed to working harder to build the knowledge base required for effective innovation.
Focus on strategic problem-solving, instead of simply quantity of ideas. Understand the brand, the business objectives, and the target customers.  This may sound like simple stuff, but it doesn’t have to be over-complex. Brainstorming has grown to connote “no rules or limits” even the admonition “there are no bad ideas.”  But without focus, idea generation lacks the basic requirements and definition of success, and becomes useless. So neither individual nor group thinking is helpful unless there is clear agreement on the definition of success. An N-of-8 session as described in this book offers that definition and purpose.

Another difference between brainstorming and this N-of-8 thinking is the use of guidance, facilitation, and focus. Too many teams just get in a room to “blue sky” about a particular issue. Without a leader, a brainstorming group can't think effectively. We might as well be exchanging emails or instant messages. When the leader's techniques are inspired by N-of-8, there is a clear method.

There are three key things a leader of an N-of-8 provides:
  • an environment that is conducive to innovation;
  • an experience fresh and exciting; and
  • a pace that gets and keeps the ideas flowing.
What if we went so far as to ban brainstorming (the word) and encourage N-of-8 thinking?
What's the difference...just words, or something more fundamental?

First up, words are fundamental, and the language you put around something will shape people's attitude towards it.

Second, it's about the difference between thinking in series or in parallel. Imagine a group of people as a collection of computers; then connect all those computers together, get them working on a single computation, and you will have access to massive computing power. But if you use them each individually and set them off computing on the same problem, they will do it no more effectively or quickly than one computer alone. That's the difference between a bunch of individuals all firing out their ideas, and a connected group of people thinking together powerfully.

Brainstorming to me implies the former...chaos, individualism, and too greater emphasis of divergent thinking. N-of-8 thinking allows for individual divergent thinking, yet disciplines it and captures it in a collective and convergent format. That's where the value lies.

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