Recently the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Sop Talking by Susan Cain, has been causing quite a stir in the innovation community. This book is a groundbreaker in terms of starting a conversation about the often-overlooked 30-40% of our society who are introverts. While many people focused on innovation and innovation performance saw a positive message for unlocking the contributions of introverts for generating value, many took exception to the perceived denigration of some generally accepted innovation practices. The attack on brainstorming immediately comes to mind.
Brainstorming, as the most visible activity being addressed, has long borne the brunt of derisive and dismissive commentary. Its value has been called into question on numerous occasions. More recently the pitch against this practice has become focused on the relative value and productivity of thinking of new ideas alone. It seemed strange that in order for introverts to come to the fore it was necessary to malign some of the practices and attributes of the extroverts.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
- African proverb
My only response is that the value of brainstorming in groups is only as good as the context in which the brainstorming is conducted and the rules which serve to guide its participants. In short, not all brainstorming is created equal, but many who conduct brainstorming sessions fall short because they do not prepare adequately, nor do they facilitate the brainstorming effectively. Accommodations can be made to ensure that all voices are captured in a brainstorming session, but to do so attention must be paid.
One of the best platforms for brainstorming comes from the design firm, IDEO. In an organization dedicated to bending and often breaking established rules, their seven rules of brainstorming are adhered to with a fervor bordering on the pathological. They are:
- Defer judgment
- Encourage wild ideas
- Build on the ideas of others
- Stay focused on the topic
- One conversation at a time
- Be visual
- Go for quantity
Note: I know the power of these brainstorming rules as I have used them successfully with my clients when running design thinking programs and innovation workshops. Improving the way in which we brainstorm could certainly use some attention. Killing brainstorming as a practice is not necessary.
Quiet people have the loudest minds.
- Steven King
I don’t believe that this was Cain’s intent. In fact, I think what she is trying to do with her book is carve out enough room so that introverts can quite literally “take the breath” they need before contributing. What I think has occurred is that upon a cursory examination of the book some reviewers have determined that it seeks to tear down behaviors that they value and hold dear. Due to the inflammatory nature of the comments they are being widely reported across multiple media outlets (both mainstream and blogging arenas.)
The general thesis contained in Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. This is not to be denied. But the message is being muddied by the focus on one facet and not the whole system in place that thwarts the full and meaningful contribution of the introverted,
That is an issue that the very best innovation thinkers should put their minds to. We all need to work together more effectively. If we have created business systems and practices that prevent 30-40% of our organization’s participants from feeling like they can contribute, let alone be heard, how much value are we leaving on the table?