Miles was a section manager in a large design agency.  He was in his thirties, with an unkempt beard and given to wearing corduroy trousers. He had a degree in graphics and design and was a gifted cartoonist.  The agency created advertising campaigns, advised on corporate logos and designed catalogues and brochures for a number of blue-chip companies.  The ethos of the place was right-brained, informal and emphatically ‘can do’. 

Miles was a great fan of intuitive processes and lateral thinking.  He was fascinated by the way ideas would pop into his head when he was least expecting them.  Blinding flashes of inspiration would visit him in the shower or when cruising along a motorway and, sometimes, in the middle of the night.   Besides listening to these unexpected voices, he also set great store by freewheeling sessions where he would encourage people to think ‘off the top of the head’.  This was the equivalent of playing a word-association game.  Miles would urge the participants to think wild and aim at quantity, not quality.  Sometimes, when the stream of ideas dried up, he’d indulge in some random stimulation to ‘get the creative juices flowing again.’  This involved taking hold of a dictionary and asking someone to call out two numbers.  The first was the number of the page Miles would turn to and the second was the word on that page.  Whatever word this process threw up – the more obscure the better – it would be used to unleash another torrent of thoughts.

Miles was very fond of techniques like this to free up his and others’ thinking.  Sometimes he’d produce a photograph from a newspaper or magazine and invite people to suggest an original caption.  Brainstorming was another technique that he’d inflict on his team at the drop of a hat.  He’d suddenly say, ‘Let’s brainstorm this,’ and stand eagerly at the whiteboard, marker poised, ready to record verbatim whatever ideas emerged. 

Some members of the team responded well to these brainstorming sessions.  They seemed happy to suspend judgement and spontaneously call out their ideas.  Others, however, would remain virtually silent and sit, looking embarrassed, waiting for normal business to resume.  The more Miles urged them to join in and ‘think outside the box’, the more tight-lipped they became.  Sometimes, in desperation, Miles would halt the brainstorm, seize an nearby object – a paperclip, for example, or a glass, or a pair of scissors – and say, looking pointedly at the quieter folk, ‘In how many ways could we use this?’  Unfortunately, far from re-balancing contribution rates, this would be a signal for the more verbose members of the team to fire off a rapid salvo of bizarre ideas.

One day Miles imposed yet another instant brainstorming session onto his team but, after only five minutes or so, they were interrupted by a call from Miles’ boss who wanted to see him urgently.  As Miles dashed off, he suggested that they reconvene the next day and continue where they had left off.

Sure enough, the next day the Miles called together the team to conclude the brainstorming session they had started.  Miles was astonished to notice that the members of the team who were normally tongue-tied now produced a deluge of ideas.  Indeed, the person who usually said nothing at all rattled off a dozen ideas that stimulated some promising cross-fertilisation.  Miles was delighted but puzzled.

After the meeting, Miles made a point of commenting on the success of the brainstorm to two of the team members who were normally quiet.  They agreed that it had gone well and said they’d enjoyed it more than usual.

‘But why?’ asked Miles, ‘Why was it different?’

‘It was because we had time to marshal our thoughts and generate some ideas in our own time,’ explained Sam, who was invariably struck dumb by brainstorms. ‘You see, brainstorming suits spontaneous people. But if you are the sort of person who likes time to reflect without undue pressure, then brainstorming is over before you’re ready to begin.’

Miles was staggered by this revelation. It had never previously occurred to him that the brainstorming technique was discriminatory.


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