Although brainstorming can and often does come up with the solution to a problem, it cannot be relied upon to either consistently deliver, or come up with the best solution for the problem. Therefore, in order to be absolutely confident that you will always be able to solve your complex problems, it is essential to implement a systematic problem solving approach - such as TRIZ.
Here are six common problems with only brainstorming to solve a problem - and why TRIZ works better.
1) You don’t spend enough time understanding the problem, and you end up solving the “wrong” problem
We find that about 40% of the problems we are brought in to solve are not the real problem: they are actually flawed solutions to a deeper problem. Brainstorming may provide interesting solutions to the perceived problem, but it will not uncover the real problem.
Figure 1- The dangers of offering solutions rather than defining what you really want
TRIZ confronts this problem using the thinking tool Ideal Outcome; seeking descriptions of the Ideal is a rigorous first step for problem solving. By using the Ideal Outcome teams are able to uncover and solve that more fundamental problem which in turn generates more robust solutions.
2) You run out of energy
This is why simple tricks or triggers like “imagine how a rose could solve your problem” are often used. But these are random and while they can encourage new ways of thinking, they are rarely related to your situation. It is a bit like searching for buried treasure and just picking random places to dig.
If you spend the time modelling your problem using TRIZ, the solution triggers suggested will offer the best places to dig, focusing your energy in the right places. This method provides results faster and means less energy is required.
3) You are dependent on the knowledge in the room
Chemists will suggest chemical ideas, biologists biological ideas, mechanical engineers will suggest ideas involving duct tape or hitting it really hard with a hammer (or both). This limits the scope of solutions you can generate.
Using TRIZ's 40 principles allows you to look beyond your own knowledge and find the best solutions for your problems.
4) Brainstorming favours certain types of people; not everyone in a team will contribute equally
Some people find it very easy to generate lots of ideas – others don’t. Some people are very comfortable pushing their ideas forward – others aren’t. However, if you want to get the most from your team, you need to encourage everyone to participate.
We have found that putting a big ideas sheet up on the wall and giving everyone post it notes to write their ideas on, encourages everyone to share their ideas. Even the quieter people, who are often shouted down during brainstorming, also participate when given this space and encouragement. And I say this as a noisy, confident person who loves to share her ideas.
5) You can be under the tyranny of a facilitator
When you have a facilitator in front of a flipchart, I can tell you exactly how many people in the room are fully engaged, fully participating and enjoying themselves. One. The facilitator.
If there is only one person coming up with ideas then the brainstorming session is a colossal waste of everyone else’s time and energy.
Using TRIZ, everyone is working on the same problem using the same set of tools.This means that even if you have to have someone at the front of the room with a flip chart, everyone else can still be generating solutions and sharing them.This is important as the best ideas usually come from combining different ideas together.
Using this method also stops the most senior person in the room pushing their idea forward, no matter how terrible it is which leads us on to…
6) Management often push their own solutions
The joy of teams is that different people come up with different ideas, and we want to capture all of them. Although brainstorming can be an effective way to do this, it has its pitfalls.
Brainstorming often throws up solutions which intoxicate their owner and can set everyone off in the wrong direction This may not be an issue when the rest of the team feel comfortable disagreeing with the originator of the idea, but when they are management, employees can find it very difficult to do anything another than agree. However, such situations can be much helped by the cartoon below.
The culture of an Oxford TRIZ session helps to break this with much humour and goodwill on all sides. The first stage of TRIZ problem solving involves gathering ideas from all team members and encouraging everyone to both praise and criticise them. These ideas are judged against the ideal outcome which means only ideas which solve the problem make it through to the second stage of problem solving.
I am passionate about getting teams fully engaged and participating in problem solving sessions, and TRIZ is an effective way of doing this. If you want to start a session with brainstorming, by all means do so, but once you combine brainstorming with applying the systematic TRIZ tools, I guarantee you will generate many more solutions – and these will be the solutions which solve the actual problem, not the perceived one.
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(article first published in 2015; updated September 2020.)