Brainsteering: Asking the Right Questions

“Brainstorming” isn’t necessarily the best approach for creating new ideas, contends Kevin Coyne, senior teaching professor in organization & management at Emory University’s  Goizueta Business School. In his new book, “Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas,” Coyne and his brother Shawn examine companies that have met with success by “steering” idea generation.

Drawing on more than a decade of research, the duo show how people can better solve problems and create new ideas with a mix of creative and analytic processes. In a recent Q&A with Knowledge@Emory, Coyne discusses how the book, available March 1, 2011, helps everyone— from CEO to editor to parent—generate “great ideas” by simply learning to ask the right questions.

Below is an excerpt from that interview. Click here for the entire piece or click here to learn more about the book.

Knowledge@Emory: Why, as you discuss in the book, should the strategy of “brainstorming” give way to what you call “brainsteering?

Coyne: For some time academics have shown that brainstorming doesn’t actually work in terms of providing the efficiency or effectiveness of a new idea. They have done side-by-side studies and have come to the conclusion that, rather than doing traditional brainstorming sessions, you would produce more ideas and higher quality ideas if you took the same number of people you were planning to have in the brainstorming session and put them in separate rooms to work by themselves. Researchers have also come up with a number of underlying causes to why this happens, such as people being afraid to speak in front of others.

In working through brainsteering, we took all that is known about the underlying causes for why brainstorming is a less productive strategy. We all know there are instances where people working together come up with ideas that two individuals working apart can’t come up with because each does not have the knowledge the other one does. So we still like the idea of people working together, but we had to correct all of these deficiencies in the brainstorming process that interfere with the ability to achieve that result.

Knoweldge@Emory:Is this something you and Shawn recognized before it had a name? Something that, when you worked with companies, came out in the course of the discussions?

Coyne: The name came years later; the first inklings of it came much earlier. When I was at McKinsey and Co. Strategy Practice, we were very interested in the idea that most successful companies tend to be built around a very big idea. We began to research how these companies came up with those ideas. That is what started the notion of not just asking a question, but of asking the right question—the one that leads to the big insight. We tried that in brainstorming sessions, but we consistently saw some of the problems academics have documented. We didn’t get full efficacy out of the brainstorming sessions, even when we asked these right questions. That led to working for improvements in the brainstorming process, which eventually led us to look more closely at the academic research and get more systematic about it. The term “brainsteering” came in pretty late in the entire process. I only came up with it after we got beyond the problems in brainstorming sessions and started dealing more generally with how to improve ways to come up with ideas.

Knowledge@Emory: So, what is “brainsteering?”

Coyne: Brainsteering is far broader that brainstorming because it deals with how you improve your individual capability and how you bring analysis and systematic thinking to coming up with new ideas, not just creativity—it’s running idea factories.

Knowledge@Emory: How does brainsteering fit in today’s business climate? You have businesses that have passed the stage of just trying to stay afloat but still face the challenges of being innovative with fewer people and fewer resources.

Coyne: The need for better ideas is universal. Yet when an academic or a consultant talks about new ideas, there is tendency to focus on new product ideas, because they are relatively easy to explain or to illustrate. But in fact, every manager needs new ideas, be it a sales force manager needing new ideas for who his people can call on or a factory manager needing new ideas for how to do things more efficiently and reduce cost. In any climate, managers need to come up with new ideas, and brainsteering is about helping them to do that, whether for cost reduction, service improvement, morale, or for finding a gift for a loved one.

Knowledge@Emory: Which successfully innovative companies could someone look at to improve their own decision making and idea generation?

Coyne: We tend to look at two classes of companies: the first—which we talk about more in the book—is comprised of those companies that change the entire structure of industries. The second—which is fun—focuses on those companies that came from essentially nothing to making more than a billion dollars. If you think about it, it’s hard to say which of those two represents the greater achievement.

For examples of innovators that came from nothing to being quite huge, you have to look at well-known companies like Google, Yahoo and eBay. But there are also less-than-household-names like Invidia, which did it in electronic hardware rather than software. More recent examples include companies like Groupon, Facebook, or Twitter, which, again, came from nothing but quickly caught on and became huge. All of these companies exhibited the same characteristic as 42 out of the 43 originally companies we identified as going from zero to a billion dollars in four years: they built that company around a single, powerful idea. You shouldn’t criticize Google, eBay, Facebook, or Groupon by saying “it’s just one great idea.” In fact, that’s the norm rather than the exception.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally appeared here, on the Knowledge@Emory site in a best of 2010 release. The next edition of K@E is scheduled for release in mid-March. Click here to subscribe.

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