Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” came out in 1965. Some 60 years later, the concept still holds. Watch the news today and it’s more a case of what isn’t changing. Unfortunately, change can cause great stress for employees with the uncertainty it brings. Unless you can provide them with a greater sense of their being in control — for in changin’ times, it’s time for a change in thinking.

This article delves into a fresh perspective that encourages a shift from the status quo to an embrace of “Freaky Thinking.”

Rethinking Brainstorming

When an organization needs new ideas on any topic, brainstorming is usually the go-to process. However, brainstorming sessions often promise much yet deliver little of real value. Why? Because brainstorming is a 70-year-old process.

10 years before Dylan wrote his song, advertising executive Alex Osborn introduced brainstorming to the world in his book “Applied Imagination.” It was intended to be one small part of a longer process for advertising agencies to engage their clients with. Unfortunately, only the brainstorming element became popular and it started to be used out of context — which is why it tends to fail us more often than it adds value.

Brainstorming Disasters

Let’s consider some of the basic rules of the brainstorming process to understand why the process so often fails to deliver.

  • There are no dumb ideas, so encourage wild thinking.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of dumb ideas, and even though wild ideas aren’t intentionally silly, they are usually completely impractical.

  • Quantity counts, not quality.

No, it doesn’t. A large number of poor ideas add no value for anybody.

  • Don’t discourage other people’s ideas. 

If someone persists in offering unrealistic suggestions, then a little constructive advice might help them a lot.

  • Every person and every idea has equal worth.

Actually, everyone involved has an equal opportunity to contribute value, but how they use that time is up to them.

  • Only one person should talk at a time.

While this rule ensures that there’s only ever one person talking at a time—it also ensures that there’s always someone talking.

  • False anchoring.

Early in the process somebody suggests an idea which receives a supportive comment from someone senior. This comment gives undue weight to that idea, which then acts as a false anchor for further thinking.

  • Accepting the lowest common denominator.

The team will promote the idea they all feel most comfortable with, which is often the one with the lowest common denominator of agreement — and not necessarily the best idea.

  • Voting on the best idea.

The choice of what ideas add most value should usually be left up to the owner of the issue, as they have more knowledge of the constraints and requirements.

But even though brainstorming is failing our organizations today, there’s still a strong need for creative thinking.

The Need for Creative Thinking

The World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Report 2023” presents the skills business leaders identify they will need by 2027. Creative thinking is the top skill on the rise, and close behind are other cognitive skills like analytical thinking and curiosity.

The dramatic changes in working practices since the COVID-19 pandemic mean more people are working in a hybrid manner, sharing work time between the office and their home. This enables employees’ greater freedom in where, and when, they can perform any creative thinking they need to do.

This nexus of both an identified need for creative thinking skills and the change to greater hybrid working patterns offers a once in a 70-year lifetime opportunity for training employees in new ways of thinking. This hybrid consideration is one that most creative thinking processes developed to date have failed to recognize as an opportunity. The default perspective was that good creative thinking requires numerous participants to be present at the same time in the same location. Which is potentially both a major risk — and a great opportunity — at the same time.

“Freaky Thinking” as an Alternative

Because brainstorming is our go-to tool for creative thinking, we assume we need a group to do creative thinking — but this isn’t the case at all.

Freaky Thinking is an innovative five-stage approach to help L&D leaders unleash creative thinking across their organization. It acknowledges that everyone has their own best time of day for thinking — and their best place for getting new ideas. Whether this is while in the shower, driving the car, exercising, or walking the dog, encourage your people to utilize this best time to address the important topics that need fresh thinking.

You engage them by posing the “Killer Questions” that your executive, or area leaders, most need answering. Killer Questions are bold and powerful questions that either haven’t been asked before or have been asked but haven’t been satisfactorily answered to date. They can be around any topic whatsoever —providing that they will benefit the business when the question is answered well.

Encouraging your people to realize that creative thinking can be done alone, at the personal level and in hybrid settings can be an inspiring change for them. This individual approach permits employees to work on issues that are important to them as a pilot, while simultaneously becoming familiar with a method that will help address larger organizational issues that can be posed later.

The Employee Benefits

Encouraging your employees to try new ways of thinking is a creative approach in itself. And one which allows them to pose and answer their own Killer Questions individually in their own best thinking place and time is empowering.

Besides being initiated by the individual, Killer Questions can be posed by anyone from the team manager level up to the CEO. The higher up the organization the Killer Question starts, the greater degree it can be adapted and answered from the perspective of specific departments. As an example, if the CEO poses a Killer Question to the organization related to innovative ways to reduce costs significantly, each functional area will consider it in relation to their knowledge — which will most likely focus on their area. However, this doesn’t necessarily exclude the benefits that may be obtained by an area getting “outsiders” from other areas to also answer the question on their behalf. External perspectives are always of value.

Give your employees new tools and capabilities, and then ask them to take control of answering the questions that worry them. Their answers for themselves may well benefit a wide number of other employees too when you start to roll out your organization’s Killer Questions.

Getting your employees’ minds addressing issues which concern them gets them actively involved rather than being passive worriers. A radical change in thinking is what’s needed when times are indeed a changin’.