Clients often ask me what are the best creativity techniques for producing incrimental or radical innovations. They are often surprised when I tell them that I'm not a big fan of brainstorming. I prefer the direct overt use and teaching of both critical and creative thinking skills to spot or even better to design "opportunity scenarios or windows."
Consultants who employ unfetterd brainstorming techniques or who tell their audience to "think out of the box" show a total ignorance or disregard for: 1) how the brain works in real life; 2) how it forms patterns or habits and 3) how to cut across these engrained patterns to design innovative, novel concepts.
Writing in the Dec 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, we get a good example of this:
"Many managers fail to generate a stream of solid ideas because they employ two common techniques: They encourage their people to go wild and think outside the box or they assign them the task of slicing and dicing the old boxes (in the form of existing market and financial data or specially commissioned market research) in new ways. The problem with the first method is that most people are not very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming. Imagine a random product you are trying to improve in a typical facilitated brainstorming session. Outside-the-box possibilities could include making the product bigger or smaller, lighter or heavier, prettier or more rugged (or changing its appearance in any of a hundred ways). Further ideas could involve making the product more expensive or less, or maybe breaking it into parts or bundling it with other products. They could involve changing the product's functionality, durability, ease of use, or the way it fits with other products. Or its availability, affordability, or repairability. How do you know which dimensions are fruitful to explore? More often than not, the facilitator will say, "There are no bad ideas," which only compounds the confusion. Without some guidance, people cannot judge whether they should continue in the direction of their first notion or change course altogether. They cannot handle the uncertainty, and they shut down.
The second method - slicing the data in new ways - almost always produces only small to middling insights, for different reasons. The contents of every database are structured to correspond to insights that are already recognized, not ones that aren't. (Why are sales data often organized by region? Because someone already knows that the contrasts from region to region are meaningful.) Moreover, any insights produced by recrunching publicly available numbers will probably be discovered quickly by competitors' armies of MBAs, who are most likely using the same techniques and the same data as your people."