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Deconstruction instead of brainstorming

Brainstorming is taught as the primary tool for creative thinking.

The problem is it doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some who do it well. IDEO is legendary for their ability to brainstorm. They have rules painted on the walls. Everyone learns them. It works for them. They are the exception, not the rule We’ve all been in really bad brainstorming meetings. You know what I’m talking about – the ten minute burst of energy followed by the twenty minutes of crazy, useless ideas and the requisite eyerolling and explanations about “no bad ideas.”

I’ll let you in on a secret: there are bad ideas and brainstorming is one of them.

There are three reasons why brainstorming doesn’t work:

  1. People come unprepared to a meeting.
  2. Facilitating is not as easy as a (really good) facilitator makes it look.
  3. Brainstorming works on too big of a problem.

Here, try something with me. Get out a piece of paper and a pen and write down all of the innovations you can think of for a pencil. Take 60 seconds and list out as many as you can. (Not a very long list is it?) Okay, turn the sheet over.

We’re going to try a different approach — deconstruction. First, make bullet pointed answers to the following questions:

  1. Describe the pencil. What is it made of? What shape is it? How is it made?
  2. Tell me about its function. Who uses it? How is it used? To do what?

Second, take another 60 seconds and give me ideas for innovating the pencil. Work your way thru these individual elements (your answers to the two questions above) and list out your innovations. (cue 60 seconds of music) Finished?

Compare the two lists. Which one is longer? Which one has better, more novel ideas to pursue?

I call this tool deconstruction.

It’s based on the way that language works on our brain. When you see a pencil, your brain pulls together a host of past experiences and mental connections in order to let you know it is a pencil. This helps you get thru life easier than if every time you saw an 8 inch long, 1/4 inch thick hexagonal cedar tube filled with a thin cylinder of graphite and painted yellow you thought, “I wonder if this would be a good mark-making device?” You just simply know it’s a pencil, and that you can write or draw with it.

But this is a sizable problem for creative thinking and product innovation. It’s hard to see possibilities, and that’s the core of both creative thinking and innovation – finding new solutions, opportunities and possibilities.

So instead of just trying to invent a new version of the whole, we deconstruct the object. We break it down into its physical structure, its uses, its users or consumers, how it’s manufactured – even how it’s bought, sold, stored, shipped, etc. Innovations can come from any one of these elements – just by tweaking the right one (e.g. size, material, shape). A walk thru any office supply superstore will show you dozens of novel and useful iterations on the simple pencil.

Deconstruction can be used on nouns (i.e. things and stuff – places, too) but it also works on verbs – processes and methods. It’s simple to teach. It requires no prep work. And it puts a room in the right frame of mind for creative thinking and innovation.

So, next time you find yourself in a lame brainstorm. Stop and start deconstructing.

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