Steve Kelsey: Tools for creating ideas

Steve Kelsey questions why innovative firms follow one set of rules but do not brainstorm.


This is a true story. Back in the 1939, an advertising executive called Alex F Osborn noticed that the junior members of his creative team were not contributing much in meetings.

To help them he devised a set of informal rules for meetings to encourage participation. He elaborated on his idea and published an improving book called Applied Imagination in 1953.

Now you can’t write a very big book based on a few rules, so the rules were expanded to become a new methodology (making it a nice fat expensive book).

On the cover were magnificent claims about its ability to significantly improve your creativity. It needed a catchy title so he minted a shiny new name for it.

The book sold like hot cakes and 70 years later brainstorming is still, by a very large measure, the mainstream technique for the innovation business.This was great for Alex. He made money and became famous among his peers, but brainstorming doesn’t actually work. It never has and never will. This has been proven many times in independent academic research into the technique. It might be true, but it’s amazing how effective sticking your fingers in your ears and singing “la, la, la” can be. The innovation industry is locked into a broken paradigm based on a faulty premise.

We always suspected this was the case and so a few years back I began a study of truly innovative companies including Apple, BMW, Dyson, Nespresso and Space X, to name a few. Several surprises came out of the study.

Firstly, by a very large margin most of the literature focuses on the gurus who created the companies.

The argument is that these are exceptionally visionary and talented people, without which nothing would have happened. We all love our hero inventors, especially us Brits, but this information is meaningless and does not inform us about what these companies do.So we decided to look at it another way. We asked ourselves what actions do these companies take?

This is where we had a huge surprise. Consider our list again. It covers coffee all the way through to aerospace. It covers really radical thinking.

In 2006 Space X were a tiny company who had still to fly a single rocket. Last month they successfully berthed their seventh manned spacecraft at the International Space Station.

Their system was 70 times cheaper to develop than the shuttle. After 30 years of expensive stagnation, space is now open for business. So you can share my shock when it became evident that each company followed, more or less, an identical rule set. It is, as you might expect, radically different to a conventional company, but they all operate essentially the same way.

However, Alex F Osborn was not entirely mad. Like him, I am going to write a book about it. To find out what those rules are, you’ll just have to read it.

Steve Kelsey is strategic innovations director at design agency PI Global.


One comment

  1. Every idea needs a Father and Mother. Left to their own siblings tend to squabble without clear direction and vision.