Thursday, October 21, 2010

Comparing Discussion to Brainstorming

One of the most important parts of a design process is good brainstorming.  It is impossible to end up with good prototypes - that is, prototypes that result in meaningful feedback - without being unafraid to engage in the kind of intensive, creative, and often bizarre brainstorming that is at the heart of companies like IDEO or programs like Stanford's dschool.  But what makes for a good brainstorm?

I have both participated in and facilitated (and often both at the same time) brainstorms with my peers, with teachers and administrators, and with students.  In that experience, I have found that good brainstorms essentially follow the rules I was taught at the dschool.  But I have also found that those good brainstorms - those rules for brainstorming - are nothing all that revolutionary.  It strikes me that a good brainstorm is a lot like a good conversation, only with a whiteboard and more post-it notes.

What do I mean?  Consider the dschool's "rules for brainstorming:"
1) Defer judgment
2) Go for volume (that is, quantity, not noise)
3) One conversation at a time
4) Be visual
5) Headline
6) Build on the ideas of others
7) Stay on topic
8) Encourage wild ideas

Obviously a number of these rules complement each other.  One conversation at a time, build on the ideas of others, and stay on topic are mutually reinforcing rules.  Likewise, going for volume and encouraging wild ideas work together.  The more wild the ideas, the more likely the brainstormers will produce more of them.

For my own part, I find facilitating a brainstorm fascinating, because the role the facilitator has to play is one of empowerment.  That is, you have to empower people to follow the rules.  Sometimes that comes in the form of yelling "One at a time!" or "Headline!" when appropriate.  More often, however, a teacher of brainstorming has to offer the wildest and craziest ideas that everyone else is afraid to mention.  For example, during our recent NALU 102 session, when the students were brainstorming experimental questions to investigate at Waimanalo Beach Park, I offered the classic "how many grains of sand are there on the beach?"  Why?  Not because I thought it was feasible or even all that interesting, but because I wanted to demonstrate that there's no reason to only ask questions that you can answer easily.

The same can be said of brainstorming for product development.  It's a waste of time to suggest only ideas that are easy to do.  I doubt that the people at Nintendo, for example, were having a sedate and measured conversation about feasibility when they first came up with the Wii.  No, that was a wild idea that turned into an industry force principally because it was a wild idea.  Similarly, I don't think the Google folks held back when offering the idea of getting street-view pictures of every road and intersection in the country to include with GoogleMaps.  Wild ideas - even the ones that don't lead anywhere - are essential to coming up with something that is actually innovative.

Anyway, the point here is not to discuss brainstorming, but to talk about how brainstorming is similar to a good, dialogic conversation.  As a graduate of St. John's College I have some strong opinions as to what makes a good conversation, but fortunately I don't have to articulate those myself.  Stringfellow Barr, one of the founders of the Great Books program at the college, wrote a wonderful piece called Notes on Dialogue that does the job for me.

There's less "headlining" than in the dschool list, granted, but I want to call out what I understand to be Barr's "rules for a good conversation:"
1) Be brief
2) Suggest crazy ideas
3) Ask for clarification
4) Practice prevents bedlam
5) Listen to each other
6) Try to reach an agreement
7) Follow the argument wherever it goes
8) Don't use hand-raising as a crutch
9) Listen to each other (again) and be friends
10) Don't take things too seriously

Now these rules are not identical to the brainstorming rules, but I see some overlap.  Consider Barr's demand for brevity in dialogue.  That matches quite well with the brainstorming maxim of headlining, as well as the desire to promote quantity of ideas.  Both the dschool and Barr agree, also, about the importance of wild ideas.  Moreover, the brainstorming triumvirate of "one at a time," "stay on topic," and "build on each other" are intimately related to Barr's ideals of listening to each other and following the argument where it leads.  I would also associate not taking things too seriously with deferring judgment.

What Barr does that the dschool does not do is address some of the "how," instead of just the what.  Barr advocates what goes without saying in brainstorming: practice makes perfect.  In dialogue, in particular, this is important, because as Barr points out, engaging in a non-hands-raising, authentic dialogue is extremely frustrating and often highly ineffective with beginners.  Of course, the same is true in brainstorming, where too many beginners are liable to talk over each other, to judge each other's ideas, and to be afraid to sound too crazy.

I also think that - and have experienced that - asking for clarification is sometimes essential in a brainstorm.  "Headline" can be translated as "be brief," but it can also mean, "ask someone to clarify or simplify."  Often when someone is facilitating a brainstorm (or when experienced brainstormers are working without a facilitator), the shout of "headline!" means exactly that: simplify, clarify, explain.

Perhaps the only substantive difference between the two lists is in the brainstorming preference for visual representation.  Because dialogue is a purely auditory and oral event, there is little opportunity to draw on the board (though of course, as Barr says, doodling is permissible and even encouraged).  It is true, at St. John's anyway, that good conversations in math or science classes often find a student or tutor at the board drawing mental models or working with equations, but that is a far cry from the design ideal of representing every idea - or as many ideas as possible - with pictures instead of words.

This difference is a fascinating cultural disparity between a past that was much more bookish than we are today.  For good reason we do better encouraging the visual in our modern conversations.  Nevertheless, the heart of a good conversation remains the same: listen, be brief, and don't be afraid to offer a wild idea.  It strikes me that two places so different as Stanford - at the cutting edge of design and technology and science - and St. John's - employing a Great Books and dialogic model that is over a century old - could be so close together not in what they do, but in how they do it.  To me that is an affirmation that good thinking, good collaboration, and good conversations, whether for the sake of building something, for the sake of understanding something, or just for fun, have some fundamental building blocks that are the same in almost any environment.

No comments:

Post a Comment