When the breakthrough ideas don’t come, don’t blame the brainstorming process. That’s like giving up on hammers after you smash your thumb. It’s always easier to blame the tool than to question your technique, but focusing on blame will fail to fix the underlying issue—every time.
Too often, managers assume that all they need to do is assemble people in a conference room, offer some cookies, provide a vague instruction to think outside the box, and promise that no idea is a bad idea, for creativity to burst out. But instead, this kind of approach usually leads to a painful, meandering process with no meaningful result; grist for a Dilbert cartoon or an episode of The Office, perhaps, but little more.
There is a better way (though the cookies don’t hurt). In fact, as we argue in our book Thinking in New Boxes, human brains really are not wired to think outside the box. Rather, we need various “boxes”—mental models, frameworks, and theories—to make sense of the world’s complexity. A strategy, a market segmentation, a vision: these and other boxes help leaders interpret and simplify the complex world in front of them.