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Ideas | Sean L. Womack
Three Reasons Brainstorming Doesn’t Work – And What You Can Do About It

Three Reasons Brainstorming Doesn’t Work – And What You Can Do About It

I’ve written here before that I don’t think brainstorming works. My opinion is based on 20+ years of experience running groups whose job it was to generate ideas. It didn’t matter if we were working on ideas for new products or how to advertise them, just getting in a room tossing out crazy ideas without a filter and writing them all down didn’t work. I always said there were two reasons why, but after reading a recent book on group collaboration, which details the past two decades of academic research, I found many more.

First, is that filtering has to be done at some point by some one, and it turns out that having a filter in the kinds of ideas you are trying to generate actually helps you generate better ideas – and more of them. So, start out your group letting everyone know that your goal is to generate as many unique and valuable ideas as possible.

Second – okay, maybe right now you are thinking, “wait, brainstorming is a crazy, no-bad-ideas, free-for-all, right?” – turns out no. You want the environment to be safe and you do not want people block the flow, but the goal is not a long list of everything that comes to mind. Individuals are better at making lists. Groups are better at conversations, and if you follow a few rules from improv theatre about how to keep a conversation going, then you can tap into the power of group creativity.

Third, is that almost everything that we assume about creativity, ideas and the people who have it/them is wrong. We love the story of the eureka moment and the lone inventor struggling away until his breakthrough. The problem is that when you dig into the story – and many academics have done this over the past two decades – a very different story emerges. It is a story of networks of people working and sharing ideas, making simultaneous discoveries and inching innovations along bit by bit. The true eurekas are so rare as to be non-existent. Who gets the credit has more to do with power than with true creative genius.

It turns out that all of us are better than one of us. And this turns out to be the problem in creative fields. Creative fields love to celebrate their geniuses. We put them in magazine covers. We tell and retell their stories. We write books and make movies about them. But it’s just not true.

I remember reading this story about a tower a group of people were building that would reach up to the heavens. God looked down and said, “if they speak with one voice (a common language), nothing will be impossible for them.” Now, I’m not advocating building towers to the sky, but when you are needing to develop ideas, a group of people, in a room having a conversation – preferably facilitated by someone who knows how – is a good thing. And not just good, but a “nothing is impossible” kind of good thing.

What are some good brainstorming alternatives you’ve found? Hop over to my Google+ page to discuss.

Walter Landor Talking First Moment of Truth – 50 Years Ago!

[videos file=”http://vimeo.com/12861872″ width=”500″ height=”375″][/videos]

My friends over at DOXA turned me onto this video. I am struck my a number of things in it:

1. There is nothing new under the sun.

“At the moment of truth at the store” was spoken by Walter Landor in the film some 50 years ago. This is the bedrock of Shopper Marketing, which I spent 10+ years working in thinking that P&G’s A.G. Lafley was to be credited for this idea – or at least popularizing it. This entire video is the exact same process for great packaging design that exists today. They even have a simulated store environment to walk shoppers through to research in context!

2. How well dressed EVERYONE is in this film.

Yes, I’ve seen this a thousand times and Mad Men is awakening everyone to the fact all over again, but I was surprised by the shop guys. An ascot, ties and great watches abound. The couples in the focus group rooms are dressed to the nines. I know from traveling abroad that Americans are usually perceived as consistently underdressed because of our love of denim. I don’t know, but seeing real people (not actors on TV) at band saws and turning lathes in a shirt and tie. They seemed to be working on something important. It made their work seem special. Somehow more significant and dignified, even if it was just a glass decanter.

3. The craftsmen involved in all of this seemed to have great jobs.

All of the handwork involved in the making of models, and the tools and skills needed (french curve anyone?). These hand skills are fast waning in our digital age, if they are not gone already. Watching this reminded me of watching a Swiss watchmaker at work. It also made me thankful that the best design schools in the country still require hand skill development as a foundation of design. Yes, the computer has taken much of the tedium out of so many parts of the design business, and it has even given us capabilities we never dreamed of, but in the world of visual thinking, hand skills are paramount. Perhaps it’s just wistful nostalgia, but we seem lesser for the loss of them.

4. How much of the process has remained the same.

The film is dated in terms of shooting style, soundtrack and narration to be sure. And even the end solution package designs seem quaint. But make no mistake, the strategy, the philosophy and the process have not changed. Without passing judgement on the merits of this particular product, you can still marvel at how sophisticated the mechanism of product development and advertising was back in the golden age. It seems that all our advances on the media side of the business have not yielded much advancement in terms of approach or process. I find that very interesting.

Anti-microbial tray liner?

Anti-microbial tray liner?

So, my tray table on US Air has this hideous ad. Some questions:

1. Was my flight cheaper because of this?
2. Who sells this for them – the in flight magazine?
3. What is an anti-microbial tray liner? It was the most interesting part of the ad, but no mention of any details.
4. Why remind me of all the germs floating around this super-dry and now super-infected air?
5. Who thought this was a good idea?


Annoyed in 21A

Posted via email from Sean Womack’s Stream

Now What?

Now What?

Been thinking about what to write next and have too many ideas, so I’ll just put them all out here, and see if anyone is reading and cares:

1. The Seven Brand Archetypes
2. How Ideas Take Shape
3. Communication Architecture (con’t)
4. The Top 10 Book & Thinkers on Ideas (IMHO)
5. Deconstruction (con’t)
6. The 3 Things Social Media Is
7. The 3 Things Social Media Isn’t
8. How to pick an agency
9. Top 10 on Pitching business
10. Creativity vs. Innovation
11. Experts vs. the Child-like
12. APE = Ask, Play & Engage

Anybody care to read any of these? Give me a top 3.
Or anyone want to talk about any thing else?

I’m all ears.

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Sifting my Dunbar number out of siloed data

Sifting my Dunbar number out of siloed data

You’ve probably heard more than you care to about the Dunbar number – the idea in sociology that you cannot maintain more than 150 real friendships. I began to wonder about myself. How many people do I really contact in a given period of time – say a month? This started me on revealing a journey into my own social graph.

Your social graph is all of the people that you are connected to online. I keep profiles on a number of social sites, but I only really keep up my LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts. What I realized is that many of the people that I talk to day-in and day-out are not on these sites – or at least we don’t use them to stay in touch. Perhaps this is a function of my age (>40), or some other factor, but my curiosity grew regarding the Dunbar number, how it related to me and how it might impact us all as our number of “friends” (i.e. our social graph) continues to grow. So, I decided to turn the analysis around on myself.

My first task (and problem) was how to find my own Dunbar number?

How do I connect to the people that I know and talk to on a regular basis? That part was easy. I email, talk on the phone and text (in rank order). What’s not easy is getting to the data. Well, getting to the data was easy because my phone bills are online, and so are all my emails, but porting the data is another issue. It cannot be exported into any form that allows me to analyze it. You have to get it all by hand. So, after a little cut-and-paste I had my calls and texts in Excel, but it was just a long line of dates, times, phone numbers, lengths of calls and total messages sent.

Isn’t this my data? Shouldn’t it be easier for me to analyze? Wouldn’t the phone company be doing me a service by at least allowing me to pull the feed into some kind of analytic tools ala Mint (if they are not going to serve me by looking at it for me and offering better products and services to meet my needs)? But I digress…literally back into my useless data set.

Faced with a useless mass of data, I needed to cull it down, sift and sort it, and then find an apples-to-apples way to compare the people I call the most (quantitative) and to factor in the way that I am contacting them (qualitative).

So, I created my own personal Dunbar Index.

I looked in detail at my phone calls and consolidated them down to how many calls I made/received and the total minutes of talk time. I also logged how many text messages that I send. Because I call more people than I text, texting needed to rank differently. In fact, I only text a certain people that I know better, so I needed to weight the texts more heavily. I chose an arbitrary 2.5 factor. Next, I created a very simple index out of the two numbers and matched them to my phone list. I made the actual numbers anonymous and then charted them.

Click on the charts to enlarge them.

Dunbar number for phone and text

Total Call/Text Index

Dunbar Graph sans top 3

You can see in the first one that the index has a long tail. Out of 80-ish phone calls and texts, only less than 10 make up the bulk of the volume. Even when I factor out the top 3 (second chart) because they are my spouse/home and my Google Voice voice mail and Calendar contacting me, you can see that the bulk of my calls are under 30 minutes for the month (the red line). I was surprised how many total people that I called, and how much I talked to just a few people. But this is only part of the story.

What about email?

I am a gmail user, and I love the service, but I cannot figure out an automated way to count how many emails that I sent and to whom during these same 30 days besides just counting by hand. And I’ve looked. If anyone has any ideas about how to do this, I’m all ears. Otherwise, I’ll try and hand count (it’s just a 30 day period), and then factor it into my index. This would give me realistic look at my own Social Graph using the media that I prefer to communicate with them.

So, how does this compare to my online Social Graph? And what (if anything) does this mean?

As I mentioned, I keep up my profiles and contacts via LinkedIn (tends to be more professional), Facebook (tends to be more personal), Twitter (tends to be…random), and now Buzz (just a few people). But my use of these sites is different, and has left me wondering how it integrates into my daily communication habits and patterns. And this has me wondering about all of the people that my clients are trying to reach about their varied products and services.

Markets diverge. Plain and simple. There will not be a universal device. You are going to have 4 and then 5 and then 6 screens in your life with apps and data running on all of them. Getting to all of your data – it is yours and mine after all – but getting to your data and porting it to other services (like Mint or Trip-It for example) will be important in order to realize all the possibilities that the ecosystem of networked screens affords to you.

My data is stored across so many different databases and interfaces that it is almost impossible for me to consolidate all of it. All of our data is this way. It is locked away in multiple different locations, which makes any kind of macro-level analysis impossible or incredibly labor intensive. Imagine trying to do this with 100K names or 100MM. This is a big challenge for marketers today, and it is only going to get worse.

As more sites spring up asking us to create profiles we just keep perpetuating the problem; compounding it. The freedom of this data, or at least the portability of it is a key feature of the much promised, but yet-to-be-realized Web 3.0. The web of data that can be ported, sifted, sorted, repurposed and mashed-up into all kinds of useful ways is right now just a pipe dream. But I think we are all hoping for it, and looking forward not to the freedom of our data, but the benefits that it will give to us from financial analysis and truly virtual assistants to things that will not be imagined until this future becomes just a bit more real.

What is an hour of your attention worth?

What is an hour of your attention worth?

Lost (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

Read the very disappointing cover story on my new Fortune magazine that came in the mail today. I’ll post more about it with observations when I have more time. But Jeff Jarvis was interviewed for the story and he had an interesting comment about attention. It got me thinking about all of the media and entertainment products, how much of our attention they consume, and their monetary value.
So, here is a (really) rough calculation of all that I can find easily:
  1. Video Games (take Madden as an example). $60 per unit. I read a stat that for Madden players at 2.5 hours per week = 125 hours per year. Your attention hour value is $0.48 to EA.
  2. DVD’s. $20 per unit. 2 hours per movie. Your attention hour value is $10.
  3. Movies. Average ticket price $7.18 according to MPAA. Average movie 2 hours. Attention hour value $3.59.
  4. TV. Take a dramatic show like Lost. It’s about :45 minutes of content and :15 minutes of ads (give or take). A :30 spot averages $133,774 (per data I dug up). That’s about $4MM for an episode with 11.4MM total viewers. That’s $0.35 per attention hour. We watch 6 or so hours a day for your daily attention netting $2.11 (and that’s really generous).
  5. Books. A new hardback runs $25, and will take you 20 hours to read. That’s $1.25 per attention hour.
  6. Magazines. Take that Fortune magazine I read. The published rate is $124K (I know, I know). 106 pages in the magazine, I’ll be generous and say there was 50 ad pages (I’m not going to count them). That’s $6.2MM on a base of 830K. Say you read it cover to cover in 4 hours. That’s an hour attention value of $1.86.
  7. Newspapers. Ugh. Anyone want to take a stab here? Let’s take the NYT and say it really does have 1.45MM readers. Their total revenue for news is $2.3B for a total of $1,586.20 per reader. Let’s say they spend 10 hours per week and 500 hours per year with content. That’s an hour attention value of $3.17.

So, here it is again, in Hour Attention Value order:

  1. DVD. $10.00
  2. Movies. $3.59
  3. Newspaper. $3.17
  4. Magazines. $1.86
  5. Books. $1.25
  6. Video Games. $0.48
  7. TV. $0.35 (cable fees add another $0.27)

Best I can do with free data, but it starts to get at a new kind of metric. Namely, what is the value of an hour of my time to the various media and entertainment companies that I give my money, and more importantly, my attention to? I give money directly to the entertainment companies (DVD, Movie, Book, Video Games), so this is a cost to me. But the media companies are making this money off of me in exchange for my attention. Yes, I have to pay $50+ a month for cable fees to access the programming, but it’s an attention swap.

What Jarvis pointed out is that all content is a value exchange with our attention. I wanted to begin to dig into this idea and see exactly how much money an hour of my time is worth. Yes, the margins differ and there are economies of scale, but this is a first stab at building a metric that can be consistent across formats for properties that have scale.


Posted via email from Sean Womack’s Stream

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The 4-to-1 Ratio

The 4-to-1 Ratio

Diagram of human brain showing surface gyri an...
Image via Wikipedia

We have a 4:1 input to output ratio on our head — why is it so hard to use them in this proportion?

Seeing and Hearing are art forms. Really Seeing and really Hearing are anyway. The act of observation. The art of listening. Even when we listen we are watching – what is the body language? what are the facial expressions? I read somewhere (I’ll look for it) that we pick-up on 200+ non-verbal signals when we are talking to someone. Even pupil dilation is saying something to us that we learn over time. If we are observant.

It is hard to do because it goes against our culture.

We live in a talk, write, speak, hear me, HEAR ME culture. Look at what I’m doing – making a blog post kinda criticizing the very thing I’m doing. The tools are readily available and basically free, so we are writing, posting and publishing our little hearts out. But it’s not just that our culutre has become celebrity (even micro-celebrity) focused, I think it is human nature to want to be heard, to be validated by our peers and superiors, and to be accepted into the club. Who doesn’t want to be thought of well? But our constant need to speak (in all it’s forms) is causing us to miss out on the rewards of observation, reflection and thought. And doing those three will make your speaking immensely more valuable.

Being observant means being outwardly passive but inwardly alert, curious and probing.

Paco Underhill talks about his observations of people shopping in Why We Buy and The Call of the Mall. Malcolm Gladwell is a master of observation in his reporting. Seth Godin observes the world of marketing (and business broadly) in his blog and book. It is the insights gained during patient listening, intellectually probing, and careful observing even the slightest details that allow these men to write about human nature in such unique ways. Yes, they have a craft at writing, but they have a craft at observing as well.

How do we develop the craft of Seeing and Hearing?

  1. Be quiet(er). Try the 4:1 ratio out (two eyes + two ears = 4 inputs). Next time you are in a conversation or a meeting, See & Hear 4 minutes for each minute you speak.
  2. Be present. It is easy to let our minds wonder about while someone else is doing something. Watched the airline attendant do the safety demonstration lately? Try to next time, and see what you can discern about him or her just by observing.
  3. Ask questions. Get good at this. We have a practice in our family called “highlights.” Each night (that we eat dinner together) everybody in the family gives their highlights from the day. We each do our best to give full attention, not interrupt, and then we each have to ask a question about the highlight.

Yes, that last point sounds a bit like parenting, but try it out. Take a week, or a day if that is too daunting, and make yourself ask a question of everyone who tells you something. Not everything mind you. If your spouse asks you to run to the store, then I would not suggest asking “why?” Perhaps a “can I do anything else while I’m out” instead.

No, this is for conversations…oh, you’ll know the right ones. Just try it out. Let me know how it goes.

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5 Reasons Google Buzz Is Not As Bad As Everyone Thinks

5 Reasons Google Buzz Is Not As Bad As Everyone Thinks

I’m noticing a trend — many (most?) of the people moaning about Google Buzz have not actually created a product of their own and put it out there. Five thoughts…

  1. It was smart for Google to get into the space now (i.e. Titan is coming).
  2. It was smart for them to integrate it into an existing platform (versus yet another – ff anyone?).
  3. It will be smart if they continue to make it work better (see WSJ.com – if you subscribe…grrr).
  4. It will be smart if they do that quickly (time will tell).
  5. It is smart that Mashable (and a few others), are engaging in the space.

Those who are engaging vs. bemoaning are doing two things for all of us:

  1. Making the product better through real use not speculation, and
  2. Showing us ways to use the product well right now

The longer I work in the world of ideas, the more I realize that actually rolling up your sleeves and doing something: making a product, building a website, writing a paper – or even a blog post – is better than not doing anything.

Hats off to Mashable for always embracing the new, and helping us figure out how we can use it. They have a bias toward action that is admirable.

Is anyone else doing anything interesting with Buzz right now? (complainers need not apply)

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Deconstruction instead of brainstorming

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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