Saturday, September 6, 2008

Past Projects II: Brainstorming class

Twice upon a time, in April and October of 2000 to be exact, I taught a class called "Brainstorming Basics" through the Boston Center for Adult Education. I did this for two reasons: a) I genuinely enjoy brainstorming and have always been curious about different methods of conducting and facilitating this creative endeavor; and b) I wanted to see if I could teach. As to the latter, I fancied myself to be like William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God or Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, or at least Donald Sutherland in Animal House. In other words, a cool, innovative, unorthodox teacher whose students would adore and idolize him. As it turns out, though I had an interesting approach, I'm just not a big performer type, with a voice and delivery that command attention and capture hearts, souls, and minds.

I started each class by playing a CD of a Monty Python sketch called "String" in which John Cleese does some amazing (and hilarious) brainstorming about how to market Eric Idle's 122,000 miles of string - which happens to be cut into three-inch lengths. "So it's not really useful," says Idle, whereas Cleese counters, "Well, that's our selling point!" and proceeds to rattle off a range of blue-sky ideas. Humorous and over the top as it was, the sketch also was truly illustrative of the two extremes of brainstorming: the stream-of-consciousness bellowing of anything that comes into one's mind the very second it does, and the instant, hyper-critical cutting down of any idea presented.

I taught that there were two phases to a brainstorming session; actually three. The first phase occurs well before the session takes place. In this phase, a creative brief is written and distributed to the brainstorming team that provides all the background information, creative direction, and context people will need to start generating ideas. A few days is then provided to allow ideas to gestate because the fact of the matter is that ideas are not obedient things - they don't come when you call them, and they don't always arrive when you need them. They tend to come when you're least prepared for them: in the car, in the shower, in bed. It's useful to keep paper and pen or a tape or digital recorder near you at all times when you have a brainstorming assignment.

The next two phases generally happen at the brainstorming session, although they can be broken up. The first of these two phases is the brainstorming itself. This is the process of generating and articulating ideas, which should be written on a board or on sheets so people can see them. Often, people will be able to offer useful variations on someone else's idea, so there needs to be an understanding and agreement at the start that this is an open, friendly, and safe process where no one's input is less valuable than anyone else's, and that all ideas belong to the group, so anyone can take license with anyone else's input, the goal being to improve the total pool of ideas generated.

The second phase is when ideas get analyzed and critiqued. They are not "judged" per se, but again, while no one ought to try to hurt anyone's feelings, the entire group has to take ownership of the ideas so as to build consensus around the strongest ones. It's important that this process be separate from the idea generation and articulation phase, because otherwise it has a chilling effect on people's thinking and their willingness to share their ideas. First get it all on the board, then decide which gets removed. This is another opportunity to try out variations on other people's ideas; slight changes can make a big difference. Whatever decisions are made in this phase must align with the direction set down in the creative brief. If people are excited about an idea that falls outside the scope of the brief, chances are it should be killed, unless it is felt that it is worth advocating with the client to adjust the strategic scope to accommodate the idea. More likely, though, it is the right idea for the wrong project. Save it for another project.

I find a good brainstorming session to be very exhilarating, and my classes would conclude with one that I would facilitate. If a student had an actual need, we would take it on; otherwise, I would make one up. Generally, these went pretty well, although there obviously was no time for the first, pre-session phase of getting acquainted with the material and doing some preliminary thinking.

Ultimately, I didn't continue to teach this class because I didn't think I was a very effective teacher. Nearly a decade later, I might be convinced to try it again. I still think I'll lead with that Monty Python sketch (the link in the sketch name above will take you to a page where you can hear the entire piece; you can also find the script of the sketch here).

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