Brainstorming and Conflict

Like most facilitators I have strong opinions on brainstorming. And like a lot of the soft side of quality, these facilitation skills can really open themselves to a criticism of the vulnerability of scientific claims and there is a fair amount of justification for criticisms of the pursuit of novelty over truth. Add to it that there is this major pipeline of junk psychological science and there are good reasons for challenging these opinions.

It is for this reason I do less and less brainstorming as a verbal exercise, and rely more on brainwriting as I discussed in the post “Brainstorming usually sinks your ship.”

In the article “Should we allow criticism while brainstorming?” by Dylan Walsh we are exposed to some research from Jared Curhan at MIT that shows when criticism should be leveraged in brainstorming exercises. Well worth the read.


We have all had the first rule of brainstorming, “defer judgment,” drilled into us for years. The general rule of “When a person proposes an idea, don’t say, ‘Yes, but…’ to point out flaws in the idea; instead, say, ‘Yes, and…’” which is intended to get people to add to the original idea, has become almost a norm in business settings. We have all become improv actors.

That truism is probably not a good one though. It can lend to a fairly superficial approach. Yes we need to be beyond “Yes, but”, but “Yes, and” stifles creativity. The concept of “Yes, and” gives an illusion of moving forward, avoiding conflict, but also prevents truly diving in and exploring issues.

We need to combine the best aspects of criticism and ideation, “Yes…but…and.” I propose idea A, a colleague first addresses what she perceives to be a flaw in it, provides constructive feedback (this is the “but”), and then suggests a possible way to overcome or avoid the flaw, yielding Idea B (this is the “and”). Then you do the same: You acknowledge Idea B, provide a constructive critique, and develop a new, even more improved result. Others can jump in with their critiques and proposals during the process. This kind of constructive interaction encourages a deep cycle of critical dialogues that can lead to a coherent, breakthrough idea.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • When you see a weakness in the idea, don’t simply say, “This does not work.” Rather, first explain the problem and then propose an improvement that would make it work.
  • When you do not understand the idea, don’t simply say, “That’s unclear to me.” Instead, first point to the specific spot that is unclear and then propose possible alternative interpretations: “Do you mean X or Y?” This helps all participants to see more detailed options
  • When you like the idea, do not just take it as it is. Instead, search for possible improvements and then push forward to make it even better.
  • When you listen to someone’s critique of your idea,try to learn from it. Listen carefully to the critique, be curious, and wonder, “Why is my colleague suggesting this contrasting view that is not in line with what I see? Perhaps there is an even more powerful idea hidden behind our two perspectives.” The critique becomes a positive force, focusing the team on overcoming its weaknesses and enhancing the original idea.

Good decisions require creativity. But flexing our practices we can drive that in our interactions.