Beyond the brainstorm

The other day I was giving a talk about creativity, and was asked whether brainstorming was the only way to be creative.  I thought this was a good question, because although a free wheeling “Brainstorm Session” is often seen as the main way of having new ideas, for most people other techniques will work better.

Human variability is a wonderful thing and we’re all complex mixtures of innate characteristics and possibilities, so it’s always a risky business to classify people into personality types.  Nevertheless, I’m going to give it a go, using four common personality groupings based on the well known Myers Briggs personality psychometric1.

The first group are the “Creative Mavericks.” People in this group tend to fit the classic stereotype of creative people. They love a good creative brainstorm, love producing lots of new ideas, love following their hunches and making unexpected connections between apparently disparate ideas.  Overall a bit less than a quarter of the general population falls into this group, but they are very common in creative professions, and particularly so amongst the most creative people in those professions, whether they are great artists, architects, visionary scientists or inventive engineers.

Richard Branson would be a classic example.  He’s clearly visionary and very imaginative, and has produced a wild diversity of new ventures, from music to banking and telecoms to airlines.  Some have been successful like Virgin Atlantic, others, like his proposed space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, seem to be little more than clever publicity stunts.  Many like, Virgin Clothes, Virgin Brides or Virgin Cars were dismal failures, but it doesn’t stop him producing yet more bright ideas.

I call the second group “Visionary Leaders”.  These are the sort of people that also like producing big picture ideas, but their creativity is more private and contained than the Creative Mavericks. They tend to have a “slow cook” type of creativity, so don’t like the quick fire atmosphere of a brainstorm session, but will often sit quietly doodling, then suggest a really excellent idea a few days later.  They are much better at being decisive than the Creative Mavericks, so can make strong and visionary leaders, so long as they don’t get fixated on a bad or unworkable idea.

Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher would be typical examples of this type.  Both had a vision for the way forward, and were prepared to fight hard for it, right or wrong, and often ignoring the advice of others.  Both tended to marginalise Cabinet discussions and to decide on the way forward with their own trusted confidants.

Although only about 10-15% of the population have this personality type, it is quite a common amongst senior business executives. This is why they so often find it valuable to have someone with whom they can discuss and develop their creative ideas in private, before revealing them to the rest of the organisation. For example, I was recently having a session with the Head of Innovation of a large European materials group when he revealed an idea that he estimated was worth 2.8Billion Euros to his company.  He admitted that he was excited about it, but as is so typical for this personality type, he hadn’t yet mentioned it to his colleagues!

About half of FTSE 100 Chief executives have a mentor, for just this reason.

The third group are “Innovative Trouble-shooters” They enjoy a creative brainstorm, but their bright ideas tend to be much more grounded in their own practical experience than are the ideas of the Creative Mavericks.   If James Bond ever did the Myers Briggs questionnaire, I’m sure he’d fall into this group because he’s so good at finding clever ways out of apparently impossible situations!   Perhaps a quarter of the population fall into this personality type, but it’s quite common amongst amateur inventors. One risk area for this personality is to fall into the trap of inventing a solution to a problem facing them, without noticing that they are the only person in the known universe that has this problem. One of my favourite examples of this is the patent for a “combined toy dog and vacuum cleaner” which the inventor claims will “avoid causing fear to a dog while it is being vacuumed!”

The final group are the “Careful Conservators”.   These are the sort of people who like things to be well grounded in facts, who like to do things in a systematic way and like having a well organised process to follow.  Half the population may be in this group.  Unsurprisingly, they make great accountants, or even Chancellors of the Exchequer: I’m sure Gordon Brown is in this group.  He played an important role in dealing with complexities of the first banking crisis, but struggled to articulate a compelling vision when he finally became Prime Minister.

Careful Conservators tend to dislike the quick fire, unstructured atmosphere of a brainstorm, but find it very useful if they can find a new structured tool to help their creativity, for example the Russian invention process known as TRIZ, or my tool “The Creativity Bulls-eye. Interestingly, these structured tools are less use for the Creative Mavericks, partly because they may well intuitively be doing something similar already, and partly because the Creative Mavericks find following a rigid process irritatingly confining.

As in so many things, there’s no one right way of being creative.

1   Those of you familiar with Myers Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI will recognise that that these groups are based on its classification of personality into 16 Types, in which each is given a code such as ENFP or ISTJ.  Creative Mavericks tend to be NPs; Visionary Leaders, NJs; Innovative Trouble-shooters SPs; Careful conservators SJs.