Aristotle, brainstorming, Continuum, Daniel Sobol, deliberative discourse, Fast Company, Gregory Berns, ideation, Susan Cain, teams

An Argument for "Deliberative Discourse" Over Brainstorming

Posted Dec 18, 2012 by Hult Labs

When a team finds itself at a crossroads on a project, or maybe on the cusp of tackling a formidable one, it’s not uncommon for someone to suggest a little chaos to find some creative direction: “Let’s brainstorm.”

There are variations on how to execute a brainstorming session, but the objective is generally the same: to generate ideas (good ones) that the team may eventually shape and mold into new solutions – or whatever urgent need it's seeking to fill. If the muses are particularly generous during a session, maybe the team will arrive at some insights or achieve a breakthrough that members could not have uncovered as quickly outside the context of a good, old-fashioned brainstorm.

Not so fast, says Design Strategist, Daniel Sobol, in an article in Fast Company. He is an advocate of the idea of brainstorming: “To innovate, we need environments that support imaginative thinking, where we can go through many crazy, tangential, and even bad ideas to come up with good ones.” But, he believes brainstorming can actually hurt the creative process. He cites author Susan Cain, whose book Quiet argues that brainstorming inhibits participants from fully contributing to the process because they ultimately fear being rejected by team members. And there is scientific evidence to back this assertion. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns discovered that when people voice an opinion that counters the consensus it triggers a part of the brain “associated with fear and rejection,” and he’s coined this “the pain of independence.”

Cain is a proponent of idea-building through informal gatherings that allow colleagues to discuss issues without any pressure, but Sobol (and his company Continuum) has opted for another way. He calls it “'deliberative discourse' – or what we fondly call ‘Argue. Discuss. Argue. Discuss.’” Rooted in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (an exposition on the art of persuasion) Sobol describes the process as one in which team members start – and end – with the same overall goal, and are then encouraged to purposefully bat around different points of view. This is a nice way of saying that participants are free to argue and debate, unlike in traditional brainstorming. Lest participants get overly heated and cross the line from constructive to destructive, there are rules.

1. “No Hierarchy”: The corporate chain of command has no place in deliberative discourse. Dissenting opinions are promoted at all levels – and across them. Sobol recalls a senior member of his firm telling him early on: “You should know that you’re not doing your job if you don’t disagree with me at least once a day.”

2. “Say ‘No, Because’”: The traditional brainstorming verbiage of “Yes, and” is intended to facilitate idea-building, as well as show respect for colleagues’ contributions even if/when there are disagreements. But Sobol introduces the idea of literally saying “no” – as long as you have a good reason and are prepared to articulate “why”. The phrasing is intended to artfully restrain the discussion in one important way, says Sobol: “We constantly refer back to people, asking one another if our ideas are solving a real need that people expressed […] This keeps us accountable to something other than our own opinions.”

3. “Diverse perspectives”: Everyone – everyone – has something unique to bring to the table during a problem-solving quest. Sobol’s company intentionally puts teams together composed of members with different professional backgrounds, but they don’t stop there, and here’s where the rest of us can take note. Team members are encouraged to teach each other new ways of looking at an issue if they think it will help shed some light, or aid in reaching a solution. Sobol gives an example of leveraging his theater background during an ideation to teach his team a framework that actors use. This highlights the fact that team members' differences can serve as a strength – not a weakness.

4. “Focus on a common goal”: Another term for this is a “statement of purpose,” and whether the team spells it out on a white board at the start, or posts it on a door where team members see it every day, it’s essentially a constant reminder that they all share the same goal and are working toward it – even if they do it a little differently. Says Sobol: “As much as we may argue and disagree, anything that happens in the room counts toward our shared goal. This enables us to argue and discuss without hurting one another.”

5. “Keep it fun”: Deliberative discourse can generate great results, says Sobol, if participants treat it seriously. But just like yin needs yang (and vice-versa), it does a team some good to have fun with the process – and actually have some fun. Milton Berle once said, “Laughter is the best vacation.” So, don’t be afraid of punctuating an ideation (especially a heated one) with a little “vacation.” It can also help team members take a step back, relax, and get grounded once more in the common goal before forging on.

To read Daniel Sobol’s article in full, you can go here.

Flickr photo courtesy of thecrispone

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