Brainstorming: Lessons from the Film Industry

Brainstorming
In the film and television industry, the process of brainstorming is often described using the more visceral and more visually descriptive term "spitballing." The term spitballing comes from the idea that participants can throw ideas around and "see what sticks." Although the terminology feels quite informal, spitballing is a hugely important part of developing a creative project and is typically utilized consistently from project inception through project close.

To those familiar with the film industry, film and television production can often feel completely distinct from most other industries in regards to project management. Television writers in particular use a method of spitballing that is seemingly at odds with accepted brainstorming practices, and yet the television landscape is awash with successful and critically-acclaimed shows. While this non-traditional technique may seem unique to film, television, and other creative projects, the basic tenets could easily be transferred and applied to great effect in other industries.

The Foundation of Effective Brainstorming

In television, the core group of writers on a show is often referred to simply as "the writers' room." While this terminology would suggest that the writers' room functions as a singular unit, the opposite is in fact true. A successful writers' room draws creative power from individual voices debating and critiquing ideas as they work toward a common goal. If the problem is a single plot point that doesn't fit the storyline, and the plot point can't be removed entirely without affecting the story or the duration of the episode, then it must be altered or adjusted. As with traditional brainstorming, the writers would start by calling out ideas and suggestions. But rather than simply listing the ideas as the traditional technique dictates, each suggestion is instead immediately confronted and considered within context. How does it affect the overall story? Will other plot points need to be adjusted? How will the character development be affected? The relevant issues and problems with each idea are immediately discussed in a swirl of arguments and counter-arguments, with points for and against being contributed and weighed. Eventually, the idea will either move forward as a potential option or be shelved.

This immediate dissection of ideas may seem like a recipe for disaster, because it's contrary to the traditionally accepted philosophy that brainstorming sessions should be conflict-free. A mutual understanding that no idea will be challenged means that all participants can feel comfortable expressing opinions, since no one will be made to feel that their idea is inferior or unsuitable. This conflict-free approach sounds great on paper, but research suggests that it is not nearly as effective as a brainstorming environment where open debate and critique is encouraged. A study done at the University of California at Berkeley determined that, in a group environment, reasoned dissent "fosters thinking on all sides of the issue."1 Essentially, when a person or group is faced with a dissenting opinion, they are forced to engage more critically in the discussion and develop a better understanding of the problem and their opinions, so that they can either mount a defense of their argument or reevaluate the merits of their idea.

Business unionIt should come as no surprise that the bedrock of this debate-oriented brainstorming method is trust. Trust among team members contributes to the process on two levels. First, it creates a safe space in which initial ideas can be shared openly without fear of unfair judgment or ridicule. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it creates an environment where respectful debate and critique can occur without damaging the overall team dynamic. Team members must not only feel comfortable sharing ideas, but also disagreeing with ideas. An environment where disagreements are used or construed as personal attacks is not conducive to effective problem solving. The use of debate-oriented brainstorming can make a writers' room seem like a cutthroat environment, but in reality this method can create a well-oiled machine that weeds out unsuitable ideas quickly without disrupting team synergy.

In addition to team-building activities that build trust among team members, one way to create a trusting and productive brainstorming environment is for the project manager to be actively involved and lead by example. If the project manager demonstrates willingness to trust the team, engage in reasoned and respectful debate, and accept critique in a professional manner, then the other participants are likely to follow that lead.

Brainstorming from Beginning to End

Traditional brainstorming is typically utilized more frequently during project initiation and planning, when the project details are being progressively elaborated and courses of action are being decided upon. During these initial processes, the brainstorming efforts are often more focused on information gathering and therefore debate and discussion is not always necessary. But as the planning progresses, more complex decisions need to be made regarding the schedule, budget, risk responses, or other key components of the project management plan. As such, it's important to establish early in the project how you will conduct future debate-oriented brainstorming.

Establishing a procedure for brainstorming early in the project can save you time and energy later, when you'll need to direct your efforts toward solving potentially complex problems. Much of this organizational effort will focus on simple yet effective ways of giving your brainstorming sessions an underlying structure that will serve as a strong foundation for the subsequent unstructured, creative discussions. If possible, try to designate a specific space for brainstorming activities. Brainstorming doesn't need to be confined to that space, but it helps to have a set location for initial meetings and to store necessary supplies such as pens, paper, markers, flip charts, etc.

business discussion in the officeAnother organizing aspect that can be established early is identifying a brainstorming leader. This could be the project manager, a team member chosen by the project manager, or a team member who emerges naturally as a strong leader. It's important that the position of brainstorming leader is not viewed as a position of authority, but rather as a position of oversight. Brainstorming is frequently derailed by the lack of common understanding of the end goal or, particularly in debate-oriented brainstorming, by the failure to stay focused on the problem being discussed. The brainstorming leader can function as a solution to both of these problems, while still actively participating in the process. He or she should present the group with a clear, concise explanation of the problem being worked on and monitor the discussion, steering it back on track when necessary.

During the executing and monitoring & controlling processes, brainstorming often shifts from a formal, organized activity to informal, impromptu discussions. Having an established brainstorming procedure in place can prevent this breakdown from happening. When a problem arises and it's decided that a brainstorming session is needed, the team can get started right away on identifying potential solutions, rather than sitting around waiting to agree on guidelines and methods. Even though it's not an ideal situation, spur of the moment, "thinking on your feet" brainstorming is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. Even at those times, though, previous planning and work on your brainstorming process can assist you and your team. For example, once a television episode has gone into production (when the episode is actually filmed), a line of dialogue that sounded great on the page might suddenly sound terrible when the actor speaks it. The director will call for a rewrite, and some or all of the writers will conduct a fast-paced brainstorming session. Since they already have an understanding of the important factors, such as how the dialogue might affect the episode's storyline, any upcoming storylines, or the character development, they can efficiently and effectively craft a new line without wasting any time.

The closing processes on a project are typically done quickly, but there are still opportunities to utilize effective brainstorming during these processes. Most notably, documentation of the lessons learned can benefit from creative thinking that identifies areas for improvement in the future, as well as areas where the team was particularly successful. Taking the time to identify both the negative and positive performance aspects of the project, rather than just focusing on the negative, provides a sense of balance as you review and close the project.

Going Forward

Traditional brainstorming will always have a place in project management, especially as an information gathering technique. In regards to problem-solving however, traditional, conflict-free brainstorming could prevent teams from fully understanding the options and solutions available. Focusing on debate-oriented brainstorming could be a catalyst for more creative solutions and in turn, for more efficient and effective teams.

Business Team Analyzing GraphWhile project selection decisions are often not left to the project manager, one must still be prepared to advise and consult with others in the organization to help arrive at these decisions. Gathering information and facilitating discussions will be an important part of the PM's role here. The more information, documentation, and analysis performed prior to this discussion, the more weight the PM's opinion will hold. Thus, one must have at least a high-level understanding of the most common project selection methods in order to meaningfully participate in this important process.

1. Charlan Nemeth and Matthew Feinberg, "The "Rules" of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity," Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Paper Series (2008): 1,
http://escholarship.org/uc/item/69j9g0cg.^

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