Idea generation: the M&Ms way


Where do new ideas come from?  The Sterling Rice session yesterday got me thinking.

I got my first training in the corporate approach from Denise Fonseca, now Director, Global Business and Consumer Insights at the Coca-Cola Company.   She was running a brain storming session in New York City.   I don’t remember the topic.   I do remember the training.   I especially remember the M&Ms.

Denise had assembled people with various kinds of expertise.   Most were from the academic and or professional world.  And we know what these people are like.   They do not play well with others.   They object, cavil, quibble, carp and niggle.   And that’s just at the dessert table.

Denise gave us fair warning.  She said something like: 

There is one rule in this room: No nos.  You may not contradict, dispute, or disagree with the things you hear here.   I am going to enforce this rule with my M&Ms.   When I hear you contradict, dispute or disagree, I am going to pelt you with one or several M&Ms depending on the severity your offense.

I listened with interest.   And I tried to do my best.   But years of academic training got the better of me.   I caviled, quibbled and I’m pretty sure I niggled at least once.  The first M&M struck me in the label.   The second bounced off the notes in front of me.   The last one is still embedded just below my ear.  The doctors say it’s better to leave it there.

The "No nos" rule comes as a surprise to a lot of people.   It seems like a recipe for chaos.   Isn’t caviling the very method of quality control?   Actually, it isn’t, always.   Too often it is the way academics jam the airwaves against competing ideas.   But the issue here is not quality control, it is idea generation.   When it is not the procrustean examination of ideas that is called for, but a sheer profusion of possibilities, no nos are the path to riches.

But how are we to separate the good from the bad ideas?   The good news here is that bad ideas go away all by themselves.   No one picks them up.   No one remains their champion.   Groups flock, and they always move in the direction of the good ideas. 

One of the conditions of profusion is a "non proprietary" approach on the part of the participants.  The moment an idea escapes your lips, it belongs to the group, and, if it’s a good one, to the corporation.  You have to learn to say goodbye.  You will get credit in general for your performance and might get a high 5 from a fellow participant when you have distinguished yourself, but otherwise ideas end up belonging to everyone.

Besides the invitation to return to idea generation, the reward is this: there are few things more exciting than thinking in a group.   It is as if a group mind emerges.   You are now thinking with everyone with everyone’s ideas.   The momentum is remarkable and the moment is discovery is thrilling.   You can almost feel a rising drama.   The group knows its "on to something."   It will issue from someone’s mouth (and of course you hope it’s yours) but it will in fact issue from everyone’s mind.   Bango!   Suddenly, all the disparate pieces, all the hunches, the false leads, the failed experiments clarify and you are there, staring at Newfoundland (see last post) out the right-hand window of the flying machine. 

It takes patience, and the willingness to endure vast amounts of dissonance.  Yesterday, I knew I had something but I couldn’t think how to say it.  I could only say, badly, "here, this is something we could talk about here."  I was describing an idea space, a place to explore. My group just didn’t pick it up.  This is the way the group votes.   This is the way bad ideas are made to go away.   So, I thought, "well, ok, it’s a bad idea." But it stuck with me, as things will when you can just "feel" that there is something there.  (And how this works is a mystery.  How can you know you have an idea when you can’t say what it is?  Some distant signal apparently is coming from the unconscious mind.  "Dig here!")

Anyhow, I raised it in another session.   By this time, my confidence was dwindling and I offered abject apologies and the possibility that ‘this might be nothing.’  But the facilitator of the session, a gifted person called Priscilla Pritchard, said, "well, wait a second, let’s work on it.  How can we open this up?"  And before very long, the group mind did open it up and extract quite a nice little idea.  In the meantime, the group is flying blind, working it’s way through all the "yeses" to the distant shore. 

All of this depends on No Nos.  Let everything in, share without regard to rights of personal ownership, share without hope of individual credit, and use the power of the group.  It is just amazing how often this gets you to Newfoundland.

I have been in lots of these groups now and not so long ago I saw a wonderful demonstration of how this process can go wrong.   I saw a person so monstrously unsuited to idea generation that I had a kind of Goffmanesque epiphany.  If you want to see the hidden rules of idea generation, observe someone who does it really badly.  It turns out that the problem is not just nos.  There are many ways to screw things up.

I give you the several rules I extracted from this person’s example.  If you want to frustrate the idea generation process, be careful to:

Offer a facial expression that suggests boredom or disdain

Offer a body posture that suggests reluctance or disengagement

Never to look at anyone else in the group

When you speak, do so in a slightly peevish tone

When you are speaking and someone affirms affirmation, (sometimes the group offers the urgings of a congregation at a Baptist service: "Thats right.  Say it!"), never accept their acceptance

Never acknowledge anyone else’s contributions

Refer often and with affection to your own contributions

And, yes, say "but," "I don’t think so," "Oh come on," "Oh, please," and, of course, "no" as often as possible.

If you want to wither the proceedings, this should do it.  On the other hand, if you want to open things up, don’t forget your bag of M&Ms.  These are a good way to say "no" when you can’t say "no." 


several posts from this blog:

creativity vs. culture here

name them and shame them

why innovators innovate here

Our new porousness and "latent inhibition" diminishment here

This old house (where new ideas come from) here

creativity and complexity theory here

Where do new ideas come from (today’s post smoke free!) here

6 thoughts on “Idea generation: the M&Ms way

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  2. steve

    This is one of the points I tried to make in my comment on “Name Them and Shame Them.” Brainstorming sessions are a time to turn down the critical sense; naysayers or “cadmium rods” are acting rudely and counterproductively during such sessions.

    But wide-open brainstorming is just one stage of a working innovaton process. The critical editing function must be deployed immediately to point out the problems that were overlooked during the open-minded phase. This can result either in amendment of the idea generated or a new brainstorming phase where people have internalized the lessons of the critical phase.

    This works for individual problem-solving as well. I once heard a graphic designer describe his process as RICE–Research, Incubate, Conceptualize, Edit–with returns to previous stages when the process got blocked at the end.

  3. T: Central

    Sounds very much like the “Independence” criteria for good group decision-making in James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. The M&Ms are an interesting addition – an ENFORCEMENT mechanism.

    Great blog, by the way, and congrats on the marriage.

  4. Acad Ronin

    Sounds like the process requires a moderator who “does not have a dog in this hunt”, and does have a large bag of M&Ms and a good throwing arm, at least if academics are involved.

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  6. Ed Lahue

    We hear this type of problem quite a bit. That many ideas are generated but not tied to specific insights and “hunting grounds”. Grant, you were probably attempting to decribe a “hunting ground” while the process was to far ahead churning ideas.

    The insights need to be clearly defined as well as agreed upon “hunting grounds” have to be established prior to any worthwhile ideation. Otherwise it’s just random brainstorming. It’s about insights not ideas!!!

    Ed Lahue
    The ELM Group

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