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Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas Hardcover – March 1, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Tired of interminable brainstorming sessions dominated by a few bloviating blowhards--and rarely resulting in a usable idea? Good news: it's not only frustrating, it's been proven to be ineffective. While we all need a regular influx of breakthrough ideas, there's got to be a better way of sparking that creativity--and the brothers Coyne present a cogent way of doing it. They introduce readers to techniques for asking the right questions and sparking more powerful ideas. The concept underlying "brainsteering" is to encourage users to focus, to look into an idea deeply rather than ricocheting around, brainstorming-style. The Coynes present a number of real and proposed business cases, including successes like Forever Stamps and Jiffy Lube. Their logical thinking exercises will help readers to maximize their ideation skills, both by systematically exploring every possible nook and cranny of an issue to find new ideas, and by systematically evaluating and honing the results. (Mar.)
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“[The Coynes’] logical thinking exercises will help readers to maximize their ideation skills, both by systematically exploring every possible nook and cranny of an issue to find new ideas, and by systematically evaluating and honing the results.” (Publishers Weekly)
“The authors pepper their narrative with [...] idea-sparkers, with an appendix that is worth the cover price… [I]f the book evokes a few creative ideas, it will have done good service.” (Kirkus Reviews)
Top customer reviews
Their approach is research- and results-driven, based on two core principles: (1) "If you ask the right questions, answers and good ideas soon follow" and (2) "The right process for consistently generating breakthrough ideas looks very different from what [most people have] probably been taught." In other words, asking the right questions and following the right process will "steer" the brain to the right answers.
It is worth noting that the material provided is based on revelations generated by more than 200 McKinsey client projects, refined further by other real-world applications of insights and practices. The Coynes come across to me as being diehard pragmatists who are determined to share everything they have learned about establishing and then sustaining a process by which to generate new and better ideas all day, every day, and even on demand.
The exemplary breakthroughs they cite include easily portable personal computers (How to create one that fits into an overhead bin on an airplane?), direct sales of personal computers (How to by-pass costs and complications of the retail channel?), and large-scale "category killer" stores (Can hardware and office supplies be sold the same way Toys R Us sells its merchandise?) The visionary founders and co-founders of the most successful start-ups (e.g. Apple, Google, Facebook) all claim that they knew which questions to ask, how to answer them, and then how to apply effectively what the answers revealed.
The Coynes organize their material within four Parts: First, they explain how to know what the right questions are and how/where to answer them; next, they explain how to maximize what they call "personal ideation skills" such as MECE (see Pages 72-73) and using analysis to identify anomalies; then they explain how to "lead others to great ideas"; and finally, in Chapter 10, they explain how to develop "your own billion-dollar idea." They identify and then discuss four principles that can help to guide and inform the development of a breakthrough idea, whatever its monetary value proves to be.
Along the way, the Coynes explain what differentiates the Brainsteering approach from any others. For example, they note that it "exploits two tendencies that cause most people to miss certain kinds of insights. The first tendency is to be biased toward believing that any well-functioning process doesn't bear questioning...The second tendency is to simplify a complex world through norms and averages. People's lives are complicated. In fact, every element of their lives seems complicated."
I think the Coynes were shrewd when they decided to frame their material within a series of questions that serve two separate but related and especially important purposes: They stimulate, indeed require disciplined thinking by their reader and thus encourage the reader to interact with the material; also, the questions serve as examples of the kinds of questions - and sequences of questions - that must be asked and then answered, not only about how to generate breakthrough ideas but also about a book such as this that claims to offer a better process to do that.
It should come as no surprise to anyone, anywhere, that a frequently used technique like brainstorming is often poorly applied or misused. Even less surprising in today's environment is the discovery that some executives use brainstorming as a means to their own agendas, or that teams don't spend enough time preparing to generate ideas. If these "revelations" are news to you, you've missed quite a bit of the commentary on innovation.
So, what are we to say about "Brainsteering", the new book from Kevin and Shawn Coyne? The subtitle promises "A Better Approach To Breakthrough Ideas". The Coyne brothers present Brainsteering - their title for their approach to idea generation - as if it were wholly new and completely different. But the approach they describe is what most innovation practitioners would recognize as simply good idea generation methodology.
The Coyne brothers, like others who have written about idea generation recently, take great pains to identify all that's wrong with a traditional brainstorm. They recognize that executives may have unstated agendas, and that different power levels in a brainstorm may result in pre-conceived ideas. They point out that some people are more likely to dominate a discussion, while others for various reasons don't voice their ideas, or don't intend to share ideas at all. Further, they point out that many idea generation sessions are poorly planned, and many participants don't understand the goals of the idea generation session they've been invited to. So far this is fairly normal.
The Coyne brothers go further to state that much of Osborn's thinking and methods are incorrect. For example they point to research that shows that people are more creative individually than in a group. The Coyne brothers spend some time "debunking" what they claim are the general brainstorming approaches advocated by the general innovation community, most of which pull from Osborn's methods. However, the paper tiger they build would be unrecognizable to most innovation practitioners and many executives in Fortune 500 firms. While some firms run poorly organized, poorly planned brainstorms that are driven at the whim of the executives or the most boisterous participants, those sessions represent a small minority of the brainstorming sessions that occur every day. Further, there are strong rationales for group ideation, including the fact that most of the very creative people in an organization aren't always in tune with the needs and practical realities of bringing a product to market, and even if one person has a great idea, it takes many people to make an idea a reality as a product or service. The brothers don't comment on these facts, and seem to miss entirely the growing emphasis on "open" innovation, which isn't mentioned as a way to generate and capture ideas. In fact the book doesn't mention several of the emerging trends in innovation and creativity, open innovation being just the most important. In fact the brothers don't define innovation, and don't adequately distinguish between concepts like "incremental" and "disruptive" ideas. Further the brothers ignore other idea generation techniques, such as brainwriting, SCAMPER, analogies and so forth, that downplay the "dominance" issue. It's as if experts in a field didn't pay proper homage to the existing craft, and try to repackage good practice as a new vision.
The "big idea" in Brainsteering is the idea that a session should be effectively scoped and framed with Right Questions (their capitalization, not mine). These Right Questions are meant to ensure the team is focused on an important, relevant goal and the scope is well defined. The brothers go on to demonstrate the use of logic diagrams to show how the scope and planning should be MECE (mutually exclusive completely exhaustive). In other words, explore all the opportunities, especially the ones that aren't being explored by competition.
What's amazing is that the book presents this thinking as if it were new. The brothers don't reference any leading thinkers from the innovation or creativity space, other than to debunk Osborn. If they did any reading in the space, it doesn't show. Individuals like Tim Hurson, who wrote Think Better, or Keith Sawyer who wrote Group Genius, have both covered the points the Coyne brothers make in great detail. Of course Roger von Oech and other writers who focus on creativity have addressed many of these same issues. A quick glance at Slideshare lists hundreds of PowerPoint presentations on good idea generation practice which will look very familiar to what the Coyne Brothers propose. Here's a PowerPoint deck
[...] I placed on Slideshare in 2008, which points out the importance of pre-work, "framing" the idea generation session and excellent facilitation. There's really very little that's new in this book.
The book is eminently readable and should appeal to a wide audience of innovation practitioners and people who are new to innovation. The approach it lays out is a well-proven approach to help individuals or teams generate ideas and gain better ideas. What is unfortunate is that the book doesn't acknowledge the fact that little in the book is new or different. The book basically recaps good idea generation practices as if these practices didn't exist or weren't recognized, and completely fails to acknowledge much of the good work underway in existing innovation firms, and for that matter in many Fortune 500 firms. I suppose that the reason the book ignores much of what is happening in the innovation and creativity space and claims to introduce a completely new and different method is that will distinguish the book from others on the innovation shelves.
So overall a very readable book that claims to present some radically new thinking but in reality documents what most of us in the innovation and creativity space will recognize as best practices for running an idea generation session, which manages to completely ignore several rapidly growing trends in idea generation and management, the most important of which is "open innovation". At the minimum it would have been great for the authors to acknowledge much of what is being done well, every day in many firms where idea generation is concerned, or to have tipped their hats to all of the great work and research that has gone before them, that their work directly or indirectly is based on. I think Think Better
(http://www.amazon.com/Think-Better-Innovators-Productive-Thinking/dp/0071494936/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1299012728&sr=8-1) offers a better model for facilitation and Group Genius
(http://www.amazon.com/Group-Genius-Creative-Power-Collaboration/dp/0465071937/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299012764&sr=1-1) is better at group creativity.