brainstorming vs. brainswarming

Brainstorming is out and “brainswarming” is in

Melissa Allen|

Picture this: you and your colleagues are in a locked room, while a facilitator (external or internal) encourages everyone to shout out answers as she writes them down on the white board. As ideas are shouted out, you clam up, slightly defeated, because you realize that possibly thanks to group think, the entire team has veered so far off topic, so far away from addressing the actual problem at hand, that you’ve given up. Or maybe you’re simply too quiet or too “new” to feel like you’d make any sort of meaningful contribution.

Sound like a familiar brainstorming session to you? Apparently, there’s no evidence that brainstorming actually works, and we’re really just spinning our wheels thanks to conversation-dominating extroverts, overly-vocal senior team members, self-doubting junior team members, and a lack of collective focus, according to this article, and of course, the personal experience that many of us might have had.

Cue: brainswarming. While brainstorming is defined as the practice of sharing ideas while withholding judgment, brainswarming asks: Why do we need to talk in the first place? Brainswarming asserts that it’s unproductive to gather everyone in a room to force a solution in an environment that might not be suitable for everyone.

How brainswarming works: First, goals/challenges are defined, and then refined with sub-goal, and sub-sub goals. All available and potential resources are determined. Somewhere in the middle, there are pieces to the puzzle that joins to goals to the resources, creating viable solutions.

For example, you work for a start-up and your team is getting a product ready for launch and with the deadline fast approaching, you still have a major bug to fix. Instead of getting the team together to brainstorm, leverage communication tools – from email to collaboration software – to:

  • Define the problem.
  • Identify all available resources.
  • Encourage others to identify available resources (potentially unlocking hidden or underutilized talent in the process).
  • Encourage others to help break down the major problem into much more manageable, much less intimidating sub-problems.
  • Ladder down: have teammates connect how the sub and sub-sub-problems can ultimately be addressed by available resources.
  • Ladder up: have each teammate connect how available resources can be used to help solve the sub and sub-sub-problems.

Eventually, an actionable plan for solving the problem will emerge, all thanks to the individual strengths of every team member. If you’re a visual person, here’s a 4-minute video from HBR explaining the concept.
While this sounds great in theory, there’s evidence that brainswarming actually works: a study showed that 115 ideas were generated in 15 minutes with brainswarming, versus only 100 ideas in 60 minutes for traditional brainstorming.

Next time your team is faced with a challenge, perhaps save time and extract everyone’s best ideas with a virtual, ongoing brainswarming session.


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