Saturday, 9 March 2013


"Almost everybody does brainstorming wrong and turns it into an enormous waste of time. When most people do brainstorming, they run all over the place and think outside the box. I think they should think inside the box, the right-sided box".

— Ralph Keeney

An emeritus professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and a consultant to such diverse organizations as the Department of Energy and, just last month, a German power company with $40 billion in revenues, Keeney has devoted his career to a discipline called “decision science,” helping companies and government agencies bring focus and rigor to their decision-making process so that they can waste less time spinning their wheels and instead get clear on their objectives before they try to meet their goals.

Thirteen years ago he wrote a book, still in print, called Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decision-Making, which says that most corporate executives "put the cart before the horse". Instead of parsing the objectives they hope to achieve, they direct their energy at coming up with solutions to broadly-stated problems. 

Instead of packing executives into a conference room and brainstorming solutions, Keeney met for one hour each with 19 top people, including the CEO. He pressed them on what they thought the company’s objectives were. Then he compiled a list of 450 things the executives wanted to achieve. He took the hundreds of objectives and boiled them down to 40 major goals, with 200 subsets. Why? Because, as his paper says, "before you brainstorm, it’s essential to go through the process of analyzing and focusing on objectives". 

His latest paper, published in the December issue of a journal called Decision Analysis, spells out what he believes is the right approach. In Germany for instance, the company he counseled is trying to cope with a vastly changed energy landscape, where nuclear power will be banned as of 2022, coal emissions restricted, and by 2020 at least 20% of the company’s energy must come from non-carbon-emitting sources. “The company has to change phenomenally in order to exist 10 years out,” he says. 

Here are his four steps to effective brainstorming: 
  1. Lay out the problem you want to solve. 
  2. Identify the objectives of a possible solution. 
  3. Try to generate solutions individually. 
  4. Work as a group. 

Though he acknowledges that it’s a challenge not to “anchor” on one solution in a brainstorming session, Keeney believes that if participants have done their homework, clarifying the problem, identifying objectives, and individually trying to come up with solutions, a brainstorming session can be extremely productive. 

At the end of the paper, he describes a 2008 workshop he held to try to come up with ways to improve evacuations in large buildings in case of a terrorist attack, based on a recommendation from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Keeney brainstormed for two-and-a-half days with 30 people with expertise in everything from firefighting and building codes to handicapped people and human behavior. The result, after going through Keeney’s four-step process: a list of 300 new alternative ways to speed evacuation. Then the participants evaluated the many ideas, which included using cell phone alarms to guide people to exits and building linked sky bridges on every fifth floor. The hope, of course, is that these solutions will never be tested. But Keeney’s brainstorming method helped the group find effective suggestions. 

— Source: Forbes

No comments: