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Problems with brainstorming as a creativity tool

As part of a strategic planning process or an effort to make headway on a problem, many general counsel try brainstorming (See my post of Nov. 28, 2005: mind-map software helps brainstorm; Dec. 9, 2005: Delphi technique; Oct. 30, 2006: have rules and push participants to prepare ahead of time; Nov. 25, 2006: more techniques to improve brainstorming; and July 21, 2008: brainstorming in groups and with individuals who join them.).

What general counsel may not know, however is “that classic tool introduced by Alex Osborn in 1948 has been proved in a number of studies over the last 20 years to be far less effective than generally believed,” NY Times, Dec. 7, 2008 at BU3. Part of the criticism stems from findings that “have shown repeatedly that individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert.” Tossing out an idea for public consideration generates fear of failure, perhaps more acutely among cautious lawyers (See my post of Aug. 24, 2008: lawyers and risk averse behavior with 11 references.). Also, lawyers who want to advance their own agenda may keep their best ideas to themselves until a more opportune time (See my post of Oct. 2, 2008: competitiveness with 29 references.).

In place of benchmarking, the article recommends that general counsel break down processes into separate components, then study and improve those components to find other potential uses. The method is called “systematic inventive thinking.” Imagine analyzing the current process in a law department for selecting law firms, isolating its steps and decisions, and refining or changing them. Innovation is, after all, a continuous process of small and constant change.

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