Saturday, 28 November 2009

Worshipping workshops

In the business world there is nothing we love more than to get a bunch of executives together to do a bit of "brainstorming". Got a problem? Quickly, collect a gang together, grab some post-it notes, hug a flip chart and let's bang our brains together. We worship workshops. We bow before a good brainstorm. We love it !

But there are problems here and I often find myself on the receiving end of them.

The main problem is that brainstorms must have been invented by extroverts. They are a source of at least dismay and at worst downright fear amongst introverts.

As an introvert myself, I speak from experience. If I want to get into a problem, I want to think about it. Then discuss it a bit. Then read. Then ponder. Then talk again. It's a long, thoughtful process. No hurry. It's the "Tai Chi" style of brainstorming. It's the quiet force of a flowing stream wearing down the problem, cutting a new path.

But the extrovert pushes us I-types into a room. They time-box the problem. They leap about. They make decisions there and then. It's all action, action, action. Don't reflect, just Do. Think Karate. External Power. Chop. Thrust. Hack out a new path and surge forwards.

There is quite a macho thing in this, I think. As an Executive you feel you need to be seen to be decisive. I see this a lot in up-and-coming execs who want to prove themselves (to themselves? to each other? who to?). I see it in VCs, usually the younger ones and the analysts who jump in with cutting and barely thought out views whilst their more experienced colleagues sit back, take it in and ponder.

There is some issue to do with peoples' relationship with time here. A sense that everything is urgent. We must solve it NOW. I have very rarely come across a problem in business that needs to be solved now, now, now. There is always time to think, to reflect. It is very rare that you have to get together and solve it right now. Perhaps at the sharper end of stock trading, but not when it comes to business strategy. Never.

But what introverts do is to allow themselves to be swept along by their extrovert brothers. We turn up to the brainstorm. We pretend to enjoy it, but inside we are hating it. We barely get a word in edgeways as the extrovert throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks, running things up flagposts to see who salutes. And then horror of horrors, they actually rush out of the meeting and start ACTING on the discussion. Those decisions that were made in the few minutes of brainbanging were REAL! Yikes!

As usual in business, as in life, there is not a right or wrong way to tackle problems. There are just different ways. And lively, boisterous brainstorming sessions are certainly one of the tools in the kitbag for executives to use. But for introverts they can be a real pain and extroverts need to be aware of that before they go galloping off down that path, shouting yehaar and dragging their depressed looking introvert colleagues behind them.


Andy Gueritz said...

I think that brainstorming was invented by so-called "transformation consultants" who are at the soft and squidgy end of consulting. Strategy consultants tend to be more fact based and analytical, and although they may hold workshops they are usually a tool to tune-up an already half-finished product.

Brainstorming works on the principle that "the answer is here in the room", i.e., the people there have all the knowledge & experience necessary, which is not always the case. I have found that there are times when shrewd research and analysis digs up the right answer that is counter-intuitive and so very unlikely to have been found in a brainstorm session (but I am an INTJ...)

David Gumbrell said...

These so-called brainstorms aren't really brainstorms in the sense the originator meant. They are simply poorly structured meetings.

The "real" brainstorm process does have a period of free-flowing idea generation (the fun part for extroverts) but is supposed to be followed by a process of idea organisation, reflection and evaluation. In my experience the later stages are rarely followed, probably for the reasons you state. Perhaps you should insist on the full process - I think Kelley's Art of Innovation has a good chapter on this technique.

Wikipedia raises the interesting topic of whether brainstorms are actually less effective than people working alone - although I have always believed that some form of cross-fertilisation of ideas is very important.

Cezary B. said...

“Brainstorming does not eliminate chaotic searching. In reality it makes searching even more chaotic. The absurdity of brainstorming as a searching process is compensated for by its quantitative factor – problems are attacked by a large team.”.

Genrich Altshuller

Neil Rodgers said...

To build on Tom's extravert/introvert point, in my experience it is those who extravert their iNtuition function (known as N in Myers Briggs) who take most comfortably to the practice of brainstorming, particularly if Extraverted iNtuition is their dominant function (ENTP & ENFP types). By contrast, those whose dominant function is Introverted iNtuition (INTJ & INFJ types) tend to be less comfortable with brainstorming. This seems to be because the internalised pattern of possibilities and connectivity favoured by Introverted iNtuitives is something to be nurtured, reflected on and kept largely private until he or she is ready to share (and then sometimes only tentatively). Extraverted iNtuitives are much more likely to 'blurt it out' when they see a pattern, connection or possibility; these types prefer doing it that way and so brainstorming can be a particularly fun activity.