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Brainstorming ... the McKinsey way

- Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and president and CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development and design thinking consulting firm.

One book I enjoy reading when preparing for an engagement is called “The McKinsey Way,” by Ethan M. Rasiel. Mr. Rasiel was a consultant at McKinsey from 1989, and contributed to what is now called the McKinsey trilogy. In the book, Mr. Rasiel describes some key points critical for brainstorming:

  1. There are no bad ideas.
  2. There are no dumb questions.
  3. Be prepared to kill your babies.
  4. Know when to say when.
  5. Get it down on paper.

         (Rasiel, pp. 97-99)

Although you and I might both have a disagreement with bullet point No. 1 – there are actually some very bad ideas out there – the spirit of the five bullets provides a good framework for any brainstorming session. In organizations that I work with, there are challenges to each one of these with individuals or groups that impede the free exchange of ideas. Impediments to these must be overcome in order to ensure that your session is not a waste of time or material effort.

Accept for a moment that there are indeed no bad ideas. You can now focus your energy on accepting different points of view, free from the filter of having to sort ideas into “good” and “bad.” This step frees you up for point No. 2; if there are no dumb ideas, then it stands to reason you should be able to ask questions to get additional perspective on the idea free from the burden of feeling like others will judge you as ignorant, misinformed or off topic. That fear is a recurring problem with groups. No one likes to feel silly or off base. So create an environment where they do not.


No. 3 is also very difficult to overcome. It is natural to want to protect something you came up with or spent time on, but if it does not end up being mission-critical or relevant to the objective, you should discard it in favor of a clearly defined direction with only those contributing factors that contribute to the success of that direction.

There is a rule designers use when working within a brainstorming session. When brainstorming, the ideas eventually run out. Once it starts to get quiet, generally someone will offer something off topic or absurd, and then the ideas start to flow again. During this second “peak” of brainstorming, evidence has demonstrated that the best ideas are shared. There is then a decline, and once that decline begins, it is time to stop. Ideas shared after this second decline begins are generally not creative or relevant in a meaningful way. But pushing through to this second peak yields good results for balancing creativity and relevance.

Recording these ideas is also a necessity. Brainstorming is an opportunity to not be constrained by the typical confines of the work ecosystem. However, these sessions are still expected to yield results. This means that producing an accurate record of the session with decisions, direction, strategies, or whatever defined direction of the session was determined. In short: Keep those flip chart pages and record the data as soon as you are able to after the session to preserve the integrity of your work.

Brainstorming is the part of the strategic planning process where you get to really explore the opportunities available to you as an organization. But effective brainstorming must be conducted within a framework. They are not free-for-all sessions, nor are they a soft session meant to not have any serious outcomes. Adapted from the graphic designer Michael Bierut, these sessions are meant to define “how to … sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world.”

 For more information:Joe _Benesh_2011

 Contact: joe@ingenuitycompany.com

 Please follow: @ingenuitycmpny



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