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Innovation Is About Arguing, Not Brainstorming. Here's How To Argue Productively

At Continuum, innovation’s secret sauce is deliberative discourse. Here’s how you do it.

Turns out that brainstorming—that go-to approach to generating new ideas since the 1940s—isn’t the golden ticket to innovation after all. Both Jonah Lehrer, in a recent article in The New Yorker, and Susan Cain, in her new book Quiet, have asserted as much. Science shows that brainstorms can activate a neurological fear of rejection and that groups are not necessarily more creative than individuals. Brainstorming can actually be detrimental to good ideas.

But the idea behind brainstorming is right. To innovate, we need environments that support imaginative thinking, where we can go through many crazy, tangential, and even bad ideas to come up with good ones. We need to work both collaboratively and individually. We also need a healthy amount of heated discussion, even arguing. We need places where someone can throw out a thought, have it critiqued, and not feel so judged that they become defensive and shut down. Yet this creative process is not necessarily supported by the traditional tenets of brainstorming: group collaboration, all ideas held equal, nothing judged.

So if not from brainstorming, where do good ideas come from?

At Continuum, we use deliberative discourse—or what we fondly call "Argue. Discuss. Argue. Discuss." Deliberative discourse was originally articulated in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication. Multiple positions and views are expressed with a shared understanding that everyone is focused on a common goal. There is no hierarchy. It’s not debate because there are no opposing sides trying to "win." Rather, it’s about working together to solve a problem and create new ideas.

So we argue. And discuss. And argue. A lot. But our process is far from freeform yelling. Here are five key rules of engagement that we’ve found to yield fruitful sessions and ultimately lead to meaningful ideas.

1. NO HIERARCHY

Breaking down hierarchy is critical for deliberative discourse. It’s essential to creating a space where everyone can truly contribute. My first week at Continuum, I joined a three-person team with one senior and one principal strategist. A recent graduate, I was one of the youngest members of the company. During our first session, the principal looked me in the eye and said, "You should know that you’re not doing your job if you don’t disagree with me at least once a day." He gave me permission to voice my opinion openly, regardless of my seniority. This breakdown of hierarchy creates a space where ideas can be invented— and challenged—without fear.

2. SAY "NO, BECAUSE"

It’s widely evangelized that successful brainstorms rely on acceptance of all ideas and judgment of none. Many refer to the cardinal rule of improv saying "Yes, AND"—for building on others’ ideas. As a former actor, I’m a major proponent of "Yes AND."

But I’m also a fan of "no, BECAUSE." No is a critical part of our process, but if you’re going to say no, you better be able to say why. Backing up an argument is integral in any deliberative discourse. And that "because" should be grounded in real people other than ourselves.

We conduct ethnographic research to inform our intuition, so we can understand people’s needs, problems, and values. We go out dancing with a group of women in a small Chinese village; we work in a fry shack in the deep South; we sit in living rooms and listen to caregivers discuss looking after a parent with Alzheimer’s. This research informs our intuitive "guts"—giving us both inspiration for ideas and rationale to defend or critique them.

During ideation, we constantly refer back to people, asking one another if our ideas are solving a real need that people expressed or that we witnessed. This keeps us accountable to something other than our own opinions, and it means we can push back on colleagues’ ideas without getting personal.

3. DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES

We’ve all heard of T-shaped people and of multidisciplinary teams. This model works for us because deliberative discourse requires a multiplicity of perspectives to shape ideas. We curate teams to create diversity: Walk into a project room and you may find an artist-turned-strategist, a biologist-turned-product designer, and an English professor-turned-innovation guru hashing it out together. True to form, my background is in theater and anthropology.

On a recent project, I realized the best way to tackle a particular problem was to apply a text analysis tool that actors use with new scripts. I taught this framework to the team, and we used it to generate ideas. Another time, a team member with a background in Wall Street banking wrote an equation on the whiteboard. It was exactly the framework we needed to jumpstart our next session.

When we enter deliberative discourse, arguing and discussing and arguing and discussing, we each bring different ways of looking at the world and solving problems to the table.

4. FOCUS ON A COMMON GOAL

Deliberative discourse is not just arguing for argument’s sake. Argument is productive for us because everyone knows that we’re working toward a shared goal. We develop a statement of purpose at the outset of each project and post it on the door of our project room. Every day when we walk into the room, we’re entering into a liminal play space—call it a playing field. The statement of purpose establishes the rules: It reminds us that we are working together to move the ball down the field. As much as we may argue and disagree, anything that happens in the room counts toward our shared goal. This enables us to argue and discuss without hurting one another.

5. KEEP IT FUN

We work on projects ranging from global banking for the poor to the future of pizza and life-saving medical devices. Our work requires intensity, thoughtfulness, and rigor. But no matter the nature of the project, we keep it fun. It’s rare for an hour to pass without laughter erupting from a project room. Deliberative discourse is a form of play, and for play to yield great ideas, we have to take it seriously.

But we don’t brainstorm. We deliberate.

[Images: Kazarlenya, aboikis, and Jakgree via Shutterstock]

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