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Posts Tagged: Susan Robertson


by Susan Robertson, Facilitator and VP of Business Development

For those of us who love the power of brainstorming, the current trend to bash the benefits of it is tough. It seems to have started with Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, where she claims group brainstorming is worthless. (A book that compelled me to write an article pointing out some of the issues with her research and assumptions.) And was followed by several articles with similar themes of demonizing brainstorming—including The New Yorker and Fast Company.

These articles prompted me to start thinking about how a responsible client would go about hiring an innovation company—especially when there is so much conflicting information being bandied about. If I were in their shoes, how would I decide amongst all the companies who are offering services that are supposed to help me innovate?  How could I guarantee that the company I picked to help in our innovation efforts would deliver what we need and want?

The answer, of course, is that there are no guarantees in this, just like in life.  So I’m going to offer some thoughts on how to minimize the risks of going wrong, and maximize the chances for success. In short, my suggestion is to treat this relationship like you would any other relationship in your life. 

Do You Trust These People?
This is not about whether you trust their model or their process. Models and processes are plentiful; everybody’s got one. That’s not to denigrate their importance. It’s critical that innovation is repeatable; structure is absolutely necessary. So every innovation firm has a structure, process, or model that they follow. And most of them work quite well. If you think someone’s model seems reasonable, it probably is. So you need to decide if you trust the people as much as you trust the model. If by chance, something does go wrong, are these the people you want in the lifeboat bailing with you, or are they potentially going to bail on you?

Do They Care What You Think?
Early in my career, I was an assistant brand manager at Quaker Oats, working on the Gatorade brand. The senior management hired one of the big strategy consulting firms to rethink the future of the brand. After a meeting with the consultants (in which they pretty much ignored the opinion of everyone on our team), I privately asked my 2-levels-up boss, “Don’t you think they’re kind of … arrogant?” (I actually used a different “a” word that I won’t repeat here.)  Her response was, “Yes, totally. But they’re really smart.” 

In my relative naiveté, I assumed she must be right and that intelligence trumps all else in a relationship like this. Over time, however, I’ve learned differently. I now know that the people I want to work with are the ones who view our work together as a collaboration. 

No matter how smart a consultant is, they will never know your business like you do. They know DIFFERENT things than you know, and have DIFFERENT experiences than you have. The magic happens when those diverse sets of knowledge and expertise come together. So, don’t hire someone who agrees with you on everything, and does exactly what you ask for every time. And don’t hire someone who tries to look smarter than you, and doesn’t value your experience as important or unique. Hire someone who listens to what you say, but also challenges your assumptions, who adds value with their perspectives, questions, and suggestions, and who works WITH you to arrive at the best solutions.

Get beyond the first date before you tie the knot. Who are you really?
A client recently said to me, “We hired Firm X on the basis of the guy who originally presented to us. He was charismatic, smart, funny, and he really won over our whole team. As soon as we hired the firm, they sent in a bunch of inexperienced 24-year-olds to do the work, and we never saw or heard from him again. Obviously, we were a lot less impressed with the resulting work than we were with the initial presentation.”  Ask some questions about who will actually do the work. Is it the person/people presenting?  If you’ve only ever spoken to the Business Development specialist, ask to also speak to the person who will lead your project, and make sure that person also feels right, before you sign the contract.

Do you like them well enough to live with them?
It’s quite likely that you are going to work closely with these people for a while, and in some relatively intense environments. For example, you may find yourself in a dark back room of a focus group facility with them for several days. Would you enjoy going out to dinner with these same people every night afterward? Do you think that would be fun and/or relaxing after working with them for many days? If so, then dive in and hire them. If not, look around a little more. The best kind of consultant-client relationship is one where you’re actually so energized by the hard—and often exhausting—work you’re doing together, that you still want to hang out at the end of the day.

Of course, all the rational factors will play into your decision — quality, price, timing, output, etc. But even after you apply those filters, you will likely still have lots of potential partners to choose from. If you consider the human factors into your decision, you’ll ultimately be happier in your work with them, and more satisfied with the results.


Written by Susan Robertson, Facilitator and VP of Business Development

While we have to remember that it is entertainment—and that some parts of it might not be totally real—it’s been an interesting study for me to watch the differences between the judges on American Idol.

Randy Jackson exhibits all the hallmarks of a flaming extrovert. He interrupts the other judges, and host Ryan Seacrest, all the time. Not because he’s being rude, but because he’s thinking. And extroverts think out loud. He says a lot of words when he talks, and often repeats one or more of them many times—especially if he’s passionate about what he’s saying. His gestures are large. His voice is loud. And while the last two don’t necessarily point to extroversion (I’m a rather loud introvert myself), they do often go hand-in-hand.

Steven Tyler exhibits the tendencies of an introvert. I know it seems hard to imagine that this rock star, who has made his name (and fame) by being the exhibitionist front man for one of the most famous bands ever, could be an introvert. But based on his behavior as a judge on Idol, I’d guess that’s who he really is. He rarely speaks until he’s specifically called upon by Ryan. He never interrupts the other judges. He says far fewer total words than Randy does.  His speaking voice is relatively quiet (again, not that that necessarily means he’s an introvert, but it seems to fit the demeanor in this case). His gestures and body language generally aren’t flamboyant (again, not necessarily the sign of an introvert on its own, but another clue). While he does make the occasional grand gesture (like diving into the pool fully clothed at the end of one episode) it appears to me that this is him performing. I think the “real” him is the thoughtful, relatively quiet, more introverted person.

Jennifer Lopez’s preference for introversion or extroversion is less clear, based on her behavior on the show. I tend toward thinking she prefers more extroversion, but that’s more speculation. The other two’s preferences seem more clear to me.  So I’m going to focus on the differences between Randy and Steven.

While Randy might, on the surface, appear to be giving more feedback, if you really think about what’s being said, Steven contributes an equal amount of thinking and feedback as Randy, just more in the style that an introvert contributes. He’s equally effusive, although less wordy, when someone performs outstandingly well. And he’s equally honest when someone doesn’t.  He appears to think through what he wants to say before he says it—a classic trait of an introvert.  Randy, true to his extroverted style, appears to do his thinking as he’s talking.

How Does This Relate To Your Innovation Work?

Well, besides the fact that I just find it interesting, it can illuminate how to get the best of each person on your innovation team—by making room and space for both introverts and extroverts to do their best thinking.

A lot of innovation work, particularly in the early discovery and idea generation phases, tends to be done with a team all in a room, or on the phone together. This group work is where extroverts are most at home—they love the energy of bouncing ideas and thoughts off other people, it’s often where they do their best thinking, and it’s how they get jazzed about a project. So make room for that in your process. Let them talk all they need to, because that’s how they think best.

But, to ensure that you get the best thinking from the introverts too, you need to give them their commensurate time and space. You can start by publishing the objectives and agenda of any meeting well in advance, so they have time to incubate on it privately.

When you need to generate new thinking in a group, ask that all participants do a preparation assignment in advance.  This allows the introverts to do some deep thinking about it when they’re alone and can do their best thinking. It also offers the added benefit of getting the idea generation off to a quick start when you do get the team together. The introverts will come with some ideas already thought-through. The extroverts might come with their thoughts less fleshed out, but they’ll use the energy of the moment to generate even more.

And when you do need to come up with ideas more in the moment (when there isn’t time for a prep assignment), make sure you have a few minutes of silent thinking before people start talking. The extroverts will be chomping at the bit to start talking, and will think the three minutes of “thinking time” isn’t necessary. But if you skip this, the introverts in the group will never have time to think, because it can be tough for them to think when everyone else is talking. So, if you’re the one running the meeting, say: “Everyone please take a quiet moment to jot down some thoughts before we start talking.”  The three minutes you spend, even though they feel wasted to the extroverts, will buy you dramatically better input and participation from the introverts.

In summary, keep in mind that you need to allow both types of people to feel like they’re contributing at their best. An easy way to remember to do this is to remember what they might say: 

An extrovert would say, “I don’t know what I think until I say it.”
An introvert would say, “I don’t know what to say until I think about it.”

You need to create both individual thinking time and talking time into your innovation process. Or you just might end up with ideas only Paula Abdul could love.


Ideas To Go is happy to announce the hiring of two new Innovation Process Facilitators: Bob Taylor and Greg Cobb.

Bob comes to us from Chase, where he was VP of Retail Marketing Innovation. And, being a part of several ITG projects with Chase, Bob understands ITG’s innovation process first-hand:

At the heart of innovation—and good marketing in general—is the need to identify and discern true consumer insights. It’s hard work, but great brands do it effectively. I worked with ITG on several projects while at Chase, and found Ideas To Go to be one of the best in doing this work. The process and methodology of having clients work with Creative Consumers® associates allows you to explore and uncover deep, rich insights that can’t be found in something like a focus group. It was always a great collaborative process for my colleagues and me, when I was a client. I also found the Facilitators to be not only very experienced running projects, but because they had a marketing perspective, they could expertly guide us to the applicable insights for our marketing or messaging strategy. We always walked out with several concepts to move forward—and, importantly—we came out smarter.”

Greg, who most recently worked at custom market research firm Psyma International, connected with Ideas To Go while attending the CPSI (Creative Problem Solving Institute) Conference:

I met Susan Robertson at CPSI in 2007. She was teaching my Springboard class, and she mentioned that she worked for Ideas To Go. After she explained ITG’s ideation process, I just thought it sounded like the best thing in the world—it gives people permission to be creative by setting up the right environment and priming them for that.”

Welcome Bob and Greg!


For every project we do, we teach our clients Forness® thinking. “Forness” is a made up word (we should know, we were the ones who made it up). But it is the best word to convey its important meaning. (More on that later.)

Recently, as we were planning an upcoming project in Germany, we debated about how best to translate our made up word into other languages. Dafürsein, which means “to be in favor of it” was a possibility. But, then we realized, Forness® is more than just the letters strung together to form the word. It’s the meaning that has all the power. (I promise. The meaning is coming.)

According to Susan Robertson, “In the past when working in other languages, we have always used “Forness®" in English, since it’s a trademarked term.  I’d have some concerns about translating it to a word (clients) already know, because that word will already have connotations for them, and it won’t mean what we intend. We should probably tell (clients) that the word means nothing to English speakers when they first hear it, either.  It’s a completely made up word.  So it’s new to everyone every time we train people.”

ITG Chairman and Facilitator, Ed Harrington, offered up a possible solution. Instead of translating the word, should we consider translating its meaning: to look at an idea or thought and see what is good in it (what you are For), then think of ways to make it even better.  As Ed put it, “What would this look like as a made up word in various languages? Are there places where it just wouldn’t translate or might be totally unacceptable or nonsensical?”

The thought intrigues us. Stay tuned for more.

And for more on the meaning of Forness® thinking, check out a past issue of our newsletter, Insightings.



ITG ebook: 10 Rules for Brainstorming Success

Originally published on our Tumblr site, now it’s an ebook!


Another Critique of the Attack on Creative Collaboration

Much like our own Susan Robertson’s rebuttal to the New York Times article by Susan Cain, Keith Sawyer states his own case for how effective group brainstorming is.

Gratuitous Name Dropping. (And happy to do it!) 

Gratuitous Name Dropping. (And happy to do it!) 

Source: quirks.com


by Susan Robertson, Facilitator and VP of Business Development

If you happened to read the opinion piece published on Sunday, January 13, in The New York Times entitled “The Rise of the New Groupthink” by Susan Cain, you may be wondering about the value of brainstorming.  If it’s as useless as the author claims, why is it so popular?  Should we continue doing it?  The short answer is that the article is ill-informed and misleading.  Brainstorming is quite useful when done well. 

  • Is it true that both individual and group efforts are required for success?  Yes, of course.  And the author acknowledges it early in the article.  Then she spends the bulk of the article essentially negating her own statement, and concluding that group brainstorming is useless.
  • Is group brainstorming effective for generating creative, unique ideas?  Yes, very.  If it’s done correctly.  Cain makes no differentiation between sessions run well and sessions run poorly.
  • Is the way you’re doing it in your organization effective?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It depends on how you’re doing it, who’s leading it and how, and whether the group is trained in, and following the rules of, brainstorming.

For those who know that “brainstorming” is actually just one specific technique within a multitude of idea generation methods, forgive me the short cut.  Most people use the term “brainstorming” as a catch-all for all these techniques, and that’s how I’m using it here.

Is it true that both individual and group efforts are required for success?

One of the rules for effective brainstorming is that participants should do preparation work in advance—individual brainstorming, if you will.  That obviously also requires that the participants receive and understand the objective in advance, and spend some time exploring and thinking about the topic before they arrive at the session. 


And, obviously, there’s additional individual work that needs to happen after the brainstorming.  Not everything is most effectively done in a group.  But the exchange of ideas, the stimulus provided by other smart people, and the diverse knowledge, experience, and expertise each individual brings to a brainstorming contributes to getting more ideas—and more unique ideas—during the session.  Author Andrew Hargadon’s book, How Breakthroughs Happen; the Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, as well as his article, “Group Cognition and Creativity in Organizations” both support how these factors do effectively generate creative solutions.


Ms. Cain attempts to prove individuals are more creative than groups by arguing that people don’t find open plan offices effective, and that an overabundance of meetings gets in the way of creative work.  She states, “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”  I’m sure that’s probably true; I’ve worked in open plan offices and in companies with an over-reliance on meetings and I’ve experienced the issues.


However, this argument is about interruptions and distractions that get in the way of focusing on the task.  Not about creativity.  Interruptions and distractions inhibit all kinds of work output—whether you consider it to be creative or not.  Also, she fails to mention that groups would have the same problem.  If a group was trying to generate creative ideas and was constantly interrupted, or taken off task by distractions, it would be equally hampered and unsuccessful.  Using this line of reasoning—as an argument to prove that individual creativity trumps group creativity—simply makes no sense.

Is group brainstorming effective for generating creative, unique ideas? 

Ms. Cain claims that “decades of research” proves it isn’t.  She’s made several critical omissions and errors in her recital of the research that are important to note, and show her conclusions to be flawed.


She has omitted lots of other research with the opposite conclusion.  I don’t know if she is unaware of the other research, or has chosen to ignore it, but her review of the research is rather negligent and results in her portraying a false picture.  In published reports, Hargadon and others have shown that group brainstorming can be very effective.


From the research she has cited, she has only extracted sound bites, taken out of context.  Since she doesn’t say specifically what sources she’s using, I’ve had to make an educated guess on where she got her information.  I’ve surmised, based on what she says and the quotes she’s used, that she has nearly exclusively used a single article entitled, “The Brainstorming Myth” by Adrian Furnham.  While Furnham’s original article is far from a glowing endorsement for brainstorming, it’s a more balanced treatment than Cain’s.


At the end of his article, Furnham concludes that brainstorming sessions are likely not effective “as they are casually run in most firms.”  This speaks to my earlier point that they have to be done correctly to be effective.  But it’s not an indictment of all brainstorming, regardless of whether or not it is done appropriately.


Cain lists potential issues with group brainstorming that can be barriers, but fails to mention that skilled facilitators can—and do—help the group overcome these barriers.  Furnham notes, but Cain ignores, other research that proves that sessions run by skilled facilitators are significantly more effective than both individual efforts and sessions run by unskilled facilitators. 


One of the main research studies relied on in Furnham’s original article was a 1958 study by Taylor et al, which compared the count of ideas produced in group brainstorming to the count of ideas produced by the same number of individuals working alone.  In that study, as cited in Furnham’s article, the total number produced by the individuals exceeded the number produced by the group, leading to the conclusion that groups are not more effective than individuals.  However, it’s important to note:

  • The facilitators for the brainstorming sessions were NOT skilled.  They were graduate students with virtually no training or experience in facilitation.  So the above-mentioned problems that groups can face were probably not overcome by the facilitators, which likely suppressed the number of ideas produced by the groups. 
  • All the participants, including the individuals, were trained in brainstorming rules and techniques.  So the output of the individuals was likely raised by this training.
  • The resulting measure was likely an artificially high output for individuals, relative to the typical person working alone in their office today.  And it was also likely an artificially low output for the groups, relative to brainstorming groups run by a skilled facilitator.

  Is the way you’re doing brainstorming in your organization effective? 

If you’re following the rules of brainstorming, and the sessions are run by an experienced facilitator, it likely is.  If you’re doing it casually, without guidelines, and the sessions are run by people without knowledge of how to do it well, it may not be as efficient at generating creative solutions as it could be. 


However, even if you’re not doing it perfectly, there are significant benefits gained by the group work that may well outweigh the loss in efficiency.  Team bonding, knowledge transfer, buy-in for the results, and commitment to the objective can all be supported by working with a group, regardless of whether or not the brainstorming session was the height of efficiency.

How can you do it better?

Find or develop an experienced facilitator, train the group on how to brainstorm, and then follow the 10 Rules for Brainstorming Success.


by Susan Robertson, Facilitator and VP Business Development

A recent New York Times article suggested that group brainstorming isn’t effective at generating creative solutions.  That assertion is erroneous, for a variety of reasons.  Groups can—and do—successfully brainstorm creative and useful solutions.

But research does show that effective brainstorming requires adherence to some specific guidelines.  If it’s done casually, without guidelines, and the sessions are run by people with no knowledge of how to do it well, it will be significantly less effective than it could be.  It will either result in unrestrained chaos with no momentum to move the project forward, or it will just be plain boring (which also results in no momentum).

So, how do you set up your brainstorming sessions for success?  Follow the rules.  They will see you safely through the necessary level of chaos, to the strategic momentum you’re hoping for.

For those of you who know that “brainstorming” is actually just one specific technique within a multitude of idea generation methods, forgive me the short cut.  Most people use the term “brainstorming” as a catch-all for all these techniques, and that’s how I’m using it here.

Some of these rules are the basics that all CPS practitioners know and use.  I’ve added others based on my experience of facilitating groups for over 10 years.  So here they are, my 10 Rules for Brainstorming Success.

  1. Free them from the fear.  It’s very difficult for people to share ideas if they’re concerned about possible negative consequences.  A process and a setting that help people get past the fear are critical for the brainstorming to be effective.  One key principle in creating this setting is to prohibit any evaluation (even positive evaluation) during the idea generation.
  2. Use the power of the group.  Build, combine, and create new ideas in the moment.  Don’t just collect ideas that people have already had.  The building and combining is where the magic happens.  Occasionally break up into pairs or small groups.  This will encourage even more sharing and combining of ideas.
  3. Get some outside stimulus.  Duh.  Asking the same group of people to sit in the same room and review the same information they’ve seen before is unlikely to result in exciting, new ideas.  Talk to your customers, talk to other experts, explore how other industries are doing it.  Have the meeting in the park or in a museum.  Bring some toys into the room.  There are countless ways to shake things up; try something new every time.
  4. Encourage the crazy.  I often hear someone say at the beginning of a brainstorming, “every idea is a good idea.”  And then there’s a collective eye roll because no one believes it. While it’s not true that every idea is a practical idea, it is true that every idea can offer useful stimulus for additional ideas.  Sometimes those ideas that are tossed out as jokes can be the spark that leads to a new direction and a winning idea.  So allow, encourage, and use every idea, even if only for creative fodder.
  5. It’s a numbers game.  The more “at bats” you have, the more likely you are to hit a homerun.  So drive for quantity of ideas.  Ensure the session is long enough to generate lots.  If you only spend 10 minutes on brainstorming, don’t expect great results.
  6. Laugh a lot.  Humor stimulates creativity, so let it happen.  One easy way to start off a session; have everyone introduce themselves by answering a fun or silly question.  One we recently used in one of our sessions in December – “What’s something you DON’T need more of for the holidays?”  The resulting answers were hilarious, and started the session off on the right note.  Some of the answers even started sparking real ideas for the session!
  7. Homework is required.  Both individual and group efforts are critical for success.  So expect and insist on individual preparation in advance and follow-up afterward.  Ensure everyone knows the goal in advance of the session, and ask them to do some homework before they arrive.  When the session is over, create an action plan that allows ideas to continue to be shaped and added to as you move forward.
  8. It’s not for amateurs.  Effective brainstorming requires knowledge and skill, both to participate, and especially to facilitate.  It’s a completely different set of techniques and expertise than running other meetings, so don’t assume you can do it well just because you can run a great meeting.  If you don’t have a facilitator in your team who has the skill to train the group and run the session, hire an external one, or get some training to develop the skills internally.  
  9. If it looks like a duck, but doesn’t act like a duck, it’s not a duck.  If you can’t, or don’t intend to, follow the guidelines for successful brainstorming, then don’t call it brainstorming.  For example, a meeting that just becomes a stage for one person to spout their ideas isn’t useful or engaging.  And if a brainstorming is not organized and structured appropriately, everyone in the room will feel how ineffective it is, and they’ll be sure to skip your next session.  So, either set up for success, or don’t bother.
  10. You’re not done until you decide.  We’ve all been in this situation; it’s the end of a brainstorming session, we’ve created a long list of ideas, and someone volunteers to type up and distribute the list.  And…. that’s the end.  There’s no action, or at least not that we’re aware of.  It’s fairly demotivating to spend time and energy generating ideas and then feel they went nowhere.  So, plan time for, and require the group to do, some prioritizing of ideas during the session.  In our work, we spend at least an equal amount of time on converging as we do on diverging.  Yes, you read that right.  If you generate ideas for an hour, also spend an hour on selecting, clarifying, and refining ideas at the back end.  If you leave the meeting with a huge list of potential ideas, that’s not success.  You want to leave the meeting with a short list of clear ideas, and a plan for action on each of them.