Breaking Up with Brainstorming: How Gamestorming Helps Build an Innovation Culture

7 minute read

Upland Admin
“Science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups.” – Adrian Furnham

Do you ever get that sinking feeling when someone says, “Should we do a brainstorming session?”

You’re not alone. Many researchers were suspicious of Alex Osborn’s original outline of brainstorming when it first caught the public imagination in the 1950s.

To be fair, many of the critical studies of brainstorming look at group work in general—and at some pretty sloppy examples of it. But it’s amazing how often they find that a group of people generate fewer ideas when working together than when they work separately. These studies also catalog horrors such as:

  • The evaluation apprehension effect (fear of exposure to the group)
  • The social loafing effect (freeloading off the work of the rest of the group)
  • The sucker effect (lowering your effort so you don’t get take advantage of by the loafers)
  • The matching effect (also known as groupthink)

You’ve probably seen all these in action. With a deadline looming, a manager gathers everyone around a whiteboard. There is some anticipation about cracking open the problem and doing some real innovating. The session leader reassures everyone that no idea is a bad idea.

And then when the floor is opened, somehow, one person—the loudest person—takes over the meeting. No idea is a bad idea, right? Meanwhile, everyone else gets more quiet, and less and less comfortable speaking their minds. When the leader finally calls time, everybody gets up and leaves, hanging their heads like sad puppies.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong—brainstorming does pay off sometimes. And we can’t all just go back to our desks and hope we never get called into a group session again. Working in groups is how business gets done in today’s economy, and cross-functional teams are too valuable a source of innovation to give up.

But I think a lot of us have a relationship with brainstorming that has run its course, and it’s time to break up and start using other ideation techniques. We need approaches to innovation that taps into the value a team can bring—and that means taking a human approach, not bureaucratic.

Fueling a Fire that Gets Results

When I think about great idea generation, it’s about creating a spark. And when you have that spark, you have to have keep kindling it with more fuel. But, there’s an alternative to traditional brainstorming; one that will get you both the spark and kindling you need—and that’s “gamestorming.”

If you haven’t heard about this method yet, I strongly recommend Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators by Dave Gray. In a nutshell, gamestorming is idea generation through a structured play activity, such as short games and exercises. I think of it as fun with results.

The limitations imposed by a game make all the difference, as a UC Berkeley psychology experiment showed. Professor Charlan Namath gave a problem to three groups with three different sets of instructions. The group with instructions similar to traditional brainstorming got slightly better results than a group with little direction. But a group that had a “debate condition” imposed on them generated 25% more ideas.

Gamestorming works by drawing boundaries—like kids playing wiffle ball deciding the doghouse will be first base and a stack of firewood will be second base. When we understand the “ground rules,” we are freed to play—and even compete—in ways that make sense. You never see social loafing and sucker effects in wiffle ball, do you?

You know it’s a great gamestorm when you can’t tell the boss from the intern. Everyone is only focused on solving a problem. Egos are gone, titles are gone, and along with it, all constraints our society creates that aren’t helpful to innovation.

There is actually a community out there sharing new gamestorming ideas. In the spirit of gamestorming and creating games and activities that work for you and your teams I came up with my own called the 50/50 Experiment.

Not Getting the Results You Need? Reframe the Problem.

During the ideation process, sometimes the way a question is asked will block the path to the results you need; the gamestorm needs to set the right kind of limitations.

For example, pretend we need to redesign a refrigerator, and I ask you to draw pictures of what you think the fridge of the future will look like. We’ll end up with something that looks a lot like a refrigerator because that’s what the question asked for. We’re on the path to “sustaining innovations” rather than “disruptive innovations.”

Now, suppose instead we said, “Design a device that helps stop decomposition.” The group is going to explore some unexpected places, drawing on their familiarity with different technologies and trends. We’re activating the players’ divergent thinking; instead of aiming for a particular landmark, they use non-linear ways of thinking to work on the problem.

A Billion Sticky Notes Is Cool, but Now What?

Once the divergent thinking phase of gamestorming has generated a ton of great ideas, it’s time to do something with them. This is where the convergent thinking side of the process comes in. It’s time to focus, pick the most feasible ideas, and figure out how to implement them. Convergent thinking is all about narrowing the field of play.

Put another way, great strategy is all about finding the most elegant reduction of the possibilities.

Great strategy is all about finding the most elegant reduction of the possibilities.

To do this, think about the constraints of the project. Do you need to create a new refrigerator in six days or in six months? Is it for the baby boomer market or some other market? By clarifying those constraints, you’re able to take the ideas you’ve generated and flex them inward and outward in ways that can really generate some great thinking within a team.

Product Innovation Is Only the Start

I like this technique so much, my office even used gamestorming to figure out what to do about our overbooked conference room space! A small problem maybe, but one of the solutions we arrived at—walking meetings—is not only improving the immediate challenge, but having interesting ripple effects in our company culture. My hunch is that traditional approaches to this problem would have produced ideas for using our calendar software better. Those would be reasonable, but hardly radical.

There truly are an infinite number of business problems you can use gamestorming to solve: recruiting, planning your marketing campaign, growth hacking your social media activities, designing better customer experiences, growing your partner network, optimizing your value chain, or clarifying your value proposition. All of these are ripe for a different way of approaching the challenge.

If you look at the most innovative companies in the world right now—Google, Apple, Facebook—they’re all using gamestorming and are initiating their new hires into this type of thinking. Rather than seeing innovation as an errand, they look at it as a way of driving culture and getting results. And it’s this type of thinking that’s going to build a creative workforce and an innovation culture.

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