The following is an article that I wrote a while back for The Sunday Times but which remains relevant.
Advertising agencies put it on the map but now everyone seems to be doing it. Peter Freedman explains why bouncing ideas around the table has become so popular.
When Isaac Newton was asked how he discovered the law of gravity, he answered, “I thought about it all the time”. It was as simple as that.
If Newton, or his equivalent, were asked the same question today, he would be more likely to answer something like the following: “Well, there was a bunch of us round a table. We were meant to be coming up with ideas for a new apple sauce. And so we had to imagine we were an apple, hanging on a tree. How did we feel? And then Sally from Human Resources said, ‘I feel heavy, so heavy…’ And then I thought…”
He would, in other words, have been in a brainstorm. Born on Madison Avenue in the middle of the last century, brainstorming was long considered the preserve of those wild and crazy folk in advertising. In more recent years, however, it has spread at a growing rate into the business mainstream. It is now used by businesses of all kinds, not to mention everyone from civil servants to scientists and engineers – or, indeed, anyone these days with a problem to solve and a need for ideas to solve it.
The use of brainstorming has increased a thousand-fold in the last decade, reckons one top business psychology consultancy. And this already dramatic rate of increase seems to be growing. It never brains but it storms. Brainstorming is the new boom.
… Six people are gathered round a table in central London, trying to think of ways that they could brush their teeth with a beer bottle. The brainstormers include two PR executives, the classified ad manager of a tabloid paper and an engineer who designs radios. They surprise themselves by the number of ideas they produce – everything from using the bottle as a toothbrush handle to throwing it through a chemist’s window and looting a toothbrush.
There are a variety of reasons for the brainstorming boom, ranging from a growing awareness of the need for innovation to underlying changes in the culture of work and the relationship between bosses and workers.
The first and biggest reason is the growing realisation of the need for capitalism’s equivalent of Mao’s perpetual revolution: perpetual innovation. In a world of ever-faster change and ever-shorter consumer attention spans, firms need constantly to reinvent themselves. Thus, Saatchi and Saatchi has pronounced that, “Ideas are the currency of the future.”
“Firms are more aware that they have to be innovative, because if they are not, their competitors will be and they will fall behind, especially now that competition has become much more global”, says Bettina von Stamm, co-ordinator of the Innovation Exchange, a network of blue-chip firms interested in innovation, who meet for workshops under the auspices of the London Business School. “And to be innovative you have to be creative and generate ideas.”
One of the appeals of brainstorming, she feels, is that it is something concrete, a procedure people can go through and tick the box. “It provides a structure. And so it gives people a handle on creativity, something that is otherwise intangible.”
Thus, the Institute of Directors chose the theme “Innovate or Die” for its annual convention, held in April. “Businesses have always had to face change, but never like today, never across such a broad front and never at such a pace as today”, observed George Cox, director-general of the IOD.
“They are now competing in an environment of constantly shifting demographics, industries, politics, technologies, regulations, economies, routes to market, new competitors, rising levels of customer expectation and new ways of doing business. Each of these represents both a threat and a new opportunity. Turning a threat into an opportunity requires constant innovation.”
Big firms, said Cox, must recognise this need for continuous change. “If anyone had been asked for examples of the best managed UK companies three or four years ago, Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer and British Airways would have figured high on the list. Today, they struggle, not because they have fallen apart but because the world has moved on.” Or, as Will Rogers, Hollywood’s cowboy philosopher once put it, ‘Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just stand there’.
Lever Bros, the detergents arm of Unilever, uses brainstorming extensively as part of a broader effort to nurture a corporate culture of creativity. (This drive also includes retaining a poet-in-residence, who has been working most recently with the fabric conditioners team.) Cross-functional teams of Lever Bros staff, often with the help of an external facilitator, will brainstorm everything from the future of brands to new ideas for cause-related marketing. The firm also holds focus groups-cum-brainstorms with targeted groups of consumers.
Esra Erkal-Paler, PR manager of Lever Bros, cites the example of a recent brainstorm held with the charity Comic Relief. “One of the ideas it produced was for a tie-up between Comic Relief and Persil Colour Care”. The tagline was “Go red with Comic Relief, stay red with Persil Colour Care”. The resulting campaign won awards, boosted sales and raised some £300,000 for the charity.
But the brainstorming boom has to do with more than just the drive for innovation. It is also reflects some profound changes in the nature of work and the culture of large organisations. “The relationship between employers and employees is being rewritten at the moment”, suggests the head of one consultancy which uses a brainstorming software programme developed at the University of Arizona to let clients to brainstorm in a more interactive, and anonymous, way.
The greater use of brainstorming is thus a symptom of the shift from the “command-and-control” style of management to a new, more inclusive, participative approach, putting more stress on teamworking.
Indeed, when I conducted a brainstorm at a new travel dot.com the other day, one of the participants told me afterwards that the reason she had left her previous job, at a traditional travel agency, was that the management did not seem interested in the staff’s ideas. And one of the reasons that she liked her new job was that the opposite seemed true.
Brainstorming also suits the national psyche, reckons one business psychologist. Critics point out that brainstorming suits extroverts more than introverts, who might prefer, like Newton, to do their thinking alone.
It is true that a lot of great writers and thinkers were introverted thinkers. But research suggests that over half the UK population as a whole are extroverted thinkers, and the percentage tends to be higher still in business. Among senior managers of a top five accountancy firm, for example, one study found the proportion of extroverted thinkers to be 67%. Extroverted thinkers derive their energy from interacting with the world around them, and will soon dry up if forced to work on their own.
So, while businessfolk in other countries are lost in solitary reflection, the good news is that we in Britain seem to have what it takes to turn from a nation of shopkeepers into a nation of brainstormers – and so compete in the age of perpetual innovation.