Brainstorming: The New Boom

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.

How to Protect Your Idea

Protecting an idea for a new business is harder than protecting an idea for, say, a new invention. But new online services, plus the prospect of a major change in patent law, could benefit those worried about having their ideas stolen. Peter Freedman reports…

Sam Shemtob has an idea for a new dot.com. It is such a good idea, he feels, that… well, he is reluctant to reveal what it is. “It’s probably best described as a web-based business, providing creative services to major brand-marketing companies… but with a twist.” It is at a very early stage, he says. “I have not yet formally approached any venture capitalists.”

Shemtob thus faces the dilemma of many an aspiring dot.com entrepreneur: how to develop a business idea, assemble the team and capital to execute it, while minimising the risk that someone he shares it with along the way might steal it.

Shemtob’s problem might not be an entirely new one but it is an ever more prevalent one in today’s “knowledge economy”, where ideas are the means of production and, says Jeremy Rifkin in his new book on The Age Of Access (Penguin, £20), “intellectual capital is the driving force of the new era”. The days, at any rate, are gone when all a business needed to protect its main assets was a barbed wire fence and a pair of underfed Dobermans.

Meanwhile, First Tuesday, the Internet networking club, recently strengthened security measures, including printing a warning on its introductory leaflet, after a spate of reported “thought-thefts”, in which delegates to First Tuesday events complained of having their dot.com ideas stolen. Julie Meyer, co-founder of First Tuesday, plays down the problem, saying that the cases involved naive individuals, who had not even taken the basic steps of securing their domain names and trademarks.

If the theft of business ideas is, indeed, on the rise, the good news is that so are the number of ways of protecting ideas and other forms of intellectual property. They include new ways of registering ideas, both on the Internet and off, and the prospect of a major change in patent legislation, which might for the first time soon allow business methods, as well as products and inventions, to be patented, in the same way that they now can be in the US. (See box.)

At least two new services have sprung up to help people protect their business and other ideas. The most ambitious of these is Firstuse.com (www.firstuse.com), which, in its own words, “Can digitally fingerprint, timestamp and register any file, to strengthen legal documentation and create a tamper-proof audit trail for personal or business records, copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets”. Such a trail would then provide evidence that could potentially be used in court.

Launched last year, Firstuse already has clients in over 60 countries and 50 professions. “We ultimately wish to become the world’s central registry for record authentication”, says Cliff Michaels, its CEO. ‘It’s not a substitute for copyrights, patents and trademarks but rather a tool for proving ownership of such intellectual property.’

“For example, if Firstuse is used to register a trail of all the machinations of an idea, then even if the final draft is stolen, it would still be possible to prove ownership of the copyright to the idea.” Since all documentation, says Michaels, can be backdated and altered, Firstuse’s methodology is the only sure-fire way of guaranteeing authenticity.

The process works by digitally fingerprinting files. Firstuse applies some of the world’s most complicated algorithms (mathematical formulae) to the binary code of a digital file, so as to produce a unique fingerprint. The latter identifies only that exact file – even the slightest change to the file produces a different fingerprint.

The European Copyright Index is another new venture, offering the owners of intellectual property – anything from a piece of software to an industrial design, song, play or novel – with a new way of protecting it by furnishing them with evidence that they registered it on a particular date.

“Just an idea is almost impossible to protect in English law”, explains Nisrine Barkeah, an intellectual property lawyer with the firm Abbey Legal Protection. “What is protectable is copyright. As soon as you write or draw or design something, you own the copyright in it.”

“Anything that is copyrightable can be registered with us”, explains Andrew Jones, director of ECI. The cost is £50 per item. “We then supply stickers for people to put on their letters and samples of their work, which say ‘Registered with ECI’. It provides evidence to a court that you have put work into a project, and done so by a particular date.”

Launched unofficially in March, ECI allows people to register either by post or by using an application form downloadable from its website (www.eci.org, or www.copyright protection.net). Unlike Firstuse, however, it also requires registrants to send in a hard and sealed copy of the item to be registered. “People are still suspicious of emails as evidence”, feels Jones.

Alongside the likes of Firstuse and ECI, there is still a role for such traditional methods of protecting business ideas as confidentiality letters or non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Exactly what role, however, is a matter of opinion. “If you ask most VCs [venture capitalists] to sign an NDA, it’s a negative sign – that you don’t have the confidence to execute”, feels Julie Meyer of First Tuesday. “If you ask a VC in Silicon Valley to sign an NDA, they won’t sign it and they won’t take you seriously.”

Tom Teichman, chairman of New Media Spark, the venture capital firm which first backed lastminute.com, among many others, gives a different perspective. “Most of the VCs I know do sign NDAs, but certainly, some don’t. Some US VCs won’t sign any NDAs. They say, ‘You just have to trust me’. Yes, we sign them. But we don’t use any form that comes in. We have our own short, legal form.”

Sam Shemtob, meanwhile, has had mixed experiences with NDAs. “Some of the VCs I met at First Tuesday told me that NDAs were irrelevant and they didn’t sign them, because ‘every idea under the sun has been thought of’ and it was the management team that counted. Plus, they simply ‘didn’t have time to steal other people’s ideas’. The VCs that I struck up longer conversations with, however, were more understanding of my concerns. One said he would have been surprised had I not wanted him to sign one.”

Shemtob also spoke to Bainlab, an Internet incubation company, about their policy. “They said they don’t sign confidentiality agreements because they would preclude Bainlab from working in that area, but if I wanted to maintain confidentiality, I could send in a very brief summary, not giving anything away and explaining that confidentiality was a concern. Someone would then have a chat with me, and if they felt the venture had potential, something could be arranged.”

Yes, agrees Julie Meyer, you have to take basic precautions to protect your idea, such as registering the domain name and securing the trademarks. Beyond that, however, the best way to protect your idea is to get on and do it.

“If you don’t have some formal barrier to entry, such as a patentable technology, then the truth is that someone else out there is probably doing it anyway.” In that case, the best way of protecting your idea is simply to think faster, work harder and be smarter than anyone else. She cites the example of First Tuesday itself. It’s a very simple idea. Others are have also set up Internet networking organisations. “But we had the momentum.”

In the end, the best way to protect your idea is to execute it faster and better than anyone else. Or, as General Macarthur once advised: “Have a good plan. Execute it violently. Do it today.”