Brainstomping: An introduction

Who doesn’t love a good brainstorming session? Inhibitions are low, judgment is suspended, and a good time is had by all. Plus, there are usually doughnuts.

Set aside for a moment any critiques of brainstorming itself, any objections that it is neither efficient nor effective, or that studies show it produces suboptimal results. The fact is that brainstorming is a well-established practice that will likely continue to be used in conference rooms around the world for the foreseeable future. And that’s all right.

Brainstorming is clearly a pretty good way to produce lot of ideas, if you’re into that sort of thing. But if we stop there, we can seriously miss the point. Suspending judgment is good as long as it isn’t a permanent condition. At some point, we need to reengage our critical thinking skills and get rid of all the stupid ideas we created so proudly.

It is entirely possible we’ve done a terrible thing to our brains by participating in so many fun, doughnut-filled brainstorming sessions. Using classical conditioning, we may have inadvertently trained ourselves and our teams to associate additive activities like brainstorming with both physical and psychological rewards. It feels good. We want to do more of it, even outside an official brainstorming activity. And undoing it makes us feel uncomfortable, maybe even sad and doughnut-deprived.

This creates a tendency to continue adding things—to our designs, organizations, processes, and presentations—long after such additions have stopped being useful. The result is thoughtlessly bloated structures and excessive feature sets.

To counter this tendency we need to create a parallel, complementary practice that rewards and encourages the opposite of brainstorming. We need a way to sort the wheat from the chaff and rescue the baby from the bathwater.

Let’s refer to this activity as Brainstomping. If a brainstorm produces a lot of ideas, a stormdrain provides a mechanism for preventing stagnant pools of idea water from turning into breeding grounds for mental mosquitoes and protects us from whatever organizational viruses those mosquitoes might carry.

To be fair, brainstorming in actual practice is generally followed by a phase of binning, sorting, sifting, and deleting. But we usually do this immediately after a brainstorming session, when we’re feeling a bit tired; better to do it when we’re fresh and energetic. Besides, this behavior requires a substantial shift in perspective—so much so that it should be given a cool name all its own and considered separately from brainstorming.

Here’s the thing to understand: ideas are cheap and easy. It’s not all that tough to come up with a hundred ideas on any given topic, but frankly we neither need nor want a hundred ideas. At any given point in time, we only need one or two really good ideas, and then we need to actually do something with them. Brainstomping is a practice that can help move us in that direction.

Brainstomping is more than just the inverse of ideation. It can even be performed apart from a brainstorming session, to get rid of all sorts of clutter. So if you’re looking at a thirty-pound requirements document or a process diagram the size of house, a Brainstomping session can help winnow things down to a more reasonable size.

No sacred cows, please. If you brainstormed it, wrote it, or made it, it’s fair game for going down the drain. So don’t make a list of set-aside items that are too big for the drain. If you do, then start by draining that particular part of the swamp.

When brainstorming, the objective is to create and add, so our default mode is creative and additive. It’s all about more, more, more. Not sure if something is worth writing down? That’s all right; write it down anyway.

Brainstomping is just the reverse. The purpose is to remove and subtract, so just like brainstorming’s rule that every idea goes on the board, when Brainstomping we must turn the pencil around and make liberal use of the eraser. Not sure if something should be deleted? Only one way to find out—erase that sucker and see what happens.

Because we’ve trained ourselves to value adding things, when we propose sending item 3 down the drain, the natural response is to justify its existence and argue for its retention. Resist that urge. Instead, accept each deletion as proposed. Train your brain to work in a new way. This gets easier with practice, which is sort of the whole point.

This rule parallels the brainstorming guideline of building on other people’s ideas. For example, if someone suggests building an airplane without a pilot, then it probably doesn’t need that ejection seat. Or the oxygen system. Or the glass canopy. Remember, we’re trying to reduce quantity and hone in on the essentials. Your teammate’s suggestion to remove one thing most likely points to other parts that can also be removed.

Celebrate and encourage the deletions. Encourage and praise people’s creativity and courage when they propose sending something down the drain. One of the things Brainstomping aims to do is modify the mental programming we’ve all received through years of brainstorming. As we learn to release endorphins in response to a deletion, we increase our capacity to pursue elegant simplicity in other situations, and reduce our susceptibility to engage in misguided bloat. The fun part is essential; don’t skip it.