Brainstorming Brexit

September 1, 2016

Image result for last supper wikipedia
As Teresa May’s Cabinet re-assembled this week,  reports suggested it would ‘brainstorm’ to review progress towards Brexit.  Here’s why that didn’t happen:
Media reports surfaced this week [29 August 2016] accompanied by official images of the cabinet room, chock fulla ministers surrounding the Prime Minister, and looking like a version of The Last Supper as portrayed by Banksie.
The Guardian lampooned the suggestion by asking a few creative thinking and team-building consultants how brainstorming might work:
Get them out of the the Westminster bubble, was one Guardian suggestion.  More audaciously, dress them up as penguins, was another.
All the gurus agreed the location and the composition of the team were both serious inhibitors to success in an attempt to create useful and imaginative ideas for Teresa May’s most serious political problem in the absence of dealing with a functional opposition.
I recently suggested how brainstorming might work. The topic is important, such as finding a new advertising slogan
Various earlier posts in LWD have looked at the scope and limitations of brainstorming as a means of creative problem-solving.
Technically, a brainstorming provides a structure and a few principles which help individuals (or more commonly groups) to challenge and go beyond old beliefs and ideas.
Newer versions such as electronic brainstorming are appropriate for ‘virtual’ groups operating remotely.
Anyone interested will find information in the most recent edition of my textbook Dilemmas of Leadership, and its chapter on creative leadership, which provides a good starting point for studying the subject.
Misunderstanding of brainstorming is widespread.  Politicians and business people us it as any attempt to dream up ideas.  (My favourite misunderstanding was a well-known politician who made the perilous journey from Westminster to the bandit territories of the North to take part in a brainstorming. Unfortunately he had accepted because he imagined he had been invited to make a barnstorming speech about his department’s achievements.
Brainstorming: a personal view
After much effort and numerous publications, I have reached a view that brainstorming in the narrower sense  requires:
a topic to be considered,
a structure which tries to overcome preconceptions participants interacting to overcome social and psychological barriers
a person experienced and skilled in facilitatating the process
and a physical space conducive to new ideas.
These conditions do not completely  preclude the possibility of a Cabinet meeting carrying out a brainstorming. But they do make it highly improbable to function effectively.  The more guarded and invested in a prior idea the participants are, the less likely there is of a positive result.
And with that, I rest my case.

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Individual brainstorming: Finding a strapline for a new website

July 26, 2016





As a one-time practitioner of brainstorming approaches, I found myself recently putting the rather old-fashioned technique to use.  I needed a strap-line (marketing slogan) for a new web-page.  I report on the results as a case example for entrepreneurs, project leaders and creative designers.

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Personal recollection of Margo MacDonald [1943-2014]

April 5, 2014

I only met Margo once. It was for a BBC item on brainstorming, maybe in the 1990s

The other contributor was Derek Jameson, one of the most humourous and respected journalists of his generation. I can’t remember much about the broadcast – Radio four I think. It probably flopped, as creativity on a business issue is hard to demo live. Margo was a trooper, postponing judgement through gritted teeth, although I suspect she thought it was all a waste of time. A courageous and impressive woman.

Tudor Rickards
April 4th, 2014

Virgin Mary crisps withdrawn by Pret A Manger

February 3, 2013

Virgin Mary CrispsThe Pret A Manger food chain has withdrawn its line of Virgin Mary crisps from sale, following protests from Catholic leaders

The crisps were tomato flavor, and the name indicates a relationship to the Bloody Mary cocktail, a potent and popular concoction of vodka, tomato sauce, Tabasco sauce and assorted and idiosyncratic ingredients introduced by innovative cocktail makers.  Among enthusiasts for the drink was one Ernest Hemingway.

Bloody Mary

While Bloody Mary has always struck me as a term with potentially inflammatory connotations for Christians, it seems to have mostly avoided demonology.  The deepest objections come from those who rail across the demon drink in all its manifestations.

The Cult of Mary

The labeling of Virgin Mary crisps, however, triggers off far more powerful reactions. The Catholic Church has elevated Mary, Mother of Christ, to what has been described as cult status.

A gift to the poor

Unsurprising that Catholic leaders protested vehemently over the crisps, and Pret backed down after a broadside from the Protect the Pope website.  The offensive crisps were withdrawn and donated to the poor.  I have heard no objections to this further symbolic gesture.


The brouhaha reminded me of the outrage during the Pope’s visit to England in 2010 over the leaking of weird ideas to jazz up the visit. The bizarre outpourings of a brainstorming hit the headlines briefly. Another downer for practitioners of creativity-spurring techniques, I thought at the time.

Halal contamination

This week also saw the story of Halal meat contaminated with traces of Pork, offensive to the dietary observations of Muslim and Jewish religious practices. 

Religions sustain their beliefs through symbols.  A perceived attack on the symbols is a perceived attack which goes to the core of the religious beliefs.

On giving offence

I had no intention writing this blogpost to offend the sensibilities of subscribers to Leaders We Deserve. The image above was taken from Catholic Answers Forum. The story seems to me to have considerable interest to leaders and leadership students.

No Clay Pigeon Shooting

August 6, 2012

For many years in brainstorming sessions, Clay Pigeon Shooting was used as a metaphor for negativity towards new ideas. After Peter Wilson’s Olympic success, it’s time for a new metaphor

Clay Pigeon Shooting as a discipline had its day of glory at the London Olympics [August 2nd 2012]. I watched the unfolding of the Double Bore shooting, its formal title, with interest. Team GB celebrated the victory and gold medal earned by dead-eye Peter Wilson.

Clay Pigeons and Creative Ideas

Participants in brainstorming, as well as students passing through programmes for stimulating creativity will maybe remember the injunction “No Clay Pigeon Shooting”. It was used as a metaphor to counteract the widespread tendency for people to shoot down new ideas before they [the ideas] were given a chance to fly.

“Have you ever been in a meeting” the trainer would ask “and the moment a new idea was suggested, everyone else would raise their guns and blast it out of the air?” When everyone agreed (they usually did) the trainer would enlarge a little on the sport of Clay Pigeon Shooting, finishing with the words “So remember, in brainstorming, there’s ‘No Clay Pigeon Shooting’ … give ideas a chance to fly.”

Killer Phrases

The metaphor was offered part of a process of sensitizing participants in team training to the heinous practice of premature evaluation. Lists of killer phrases were compiled:

“that will never work”
“it will cost too much”
“not the sort of idea for our organization”
“too risky”

Yes But

The mother of all killer phrases on our courses was “Yes But”. I am still an advocate for encouraging team members to convert “Yes Buts” into more constructive ways of thinking about an idea. “Yes But that’s too dangerous” is worth reframing as “Yes And if we did this it could reduce the risks substantially without killing the basic idea”.

Don’t be negative about Clay Pigeon Shooting

Yesterday’s triumphant day at the Olympics for Peter Wilson suggests a need for a different metaphor to encourage team creativity. Suggestions welcomed.

Historical footnote

In the Paris Olympics of 1900, real pigeons were realeased. The Olympic family quickly spotted the incenveniences of the contest, not least to the pigeons. After some Yes Anding, the modern version developed. In another enlightned advance, cardboard animals were provided for shooters in the 1908 Olympics.

Fruitizz McDonald is the new fizzy smoothie at the School gates

May 9, 2012

As Innocent gets used to Coca-Cola as its foster parent, it learns of the arrival of a new kid on the block. Fruitizz from McDonalds is a newcomer at the School gates hoping to become popular for its fruitie fizzie nature

McDonald’s chief executive and president Jill McDonald said:

‘We are thrilled to be unveiling Fruitizz, a refreshing fizzy fruit juice drink that will help parents give children one of their five-a-day. For the past three years, we have been working hard behind the scenes to create a fizzy drink that is unlike anything else currently available in high street restaurants.We tried and tested 80 formulations in order to create the right product that delivers nutritional benefit as well as a new, exciting taste.’

That brainstormy feel

The name, with its slightly clunky combination of Fruit and Fizz, has that brainstormy feel to it. If so, no doubt it was the brainchild of a highly paid bunch of creatives.

But according to the story being promoted

McDonald’s aptly named boss Jill McDonald has been aiming to get her rivals in a right tizz. And the high-flying career woman and mum reckons she’s cracked it with the launch of an innovative, sparkling fruit drink for kids. Her brainchild Fruitizz – a blend of apple, grape and raspberries topped with sparkling water – has taken three years and 80 recipes to perfect.

Now it is ready to take its place on the Happy Meal menu and Jill confessed she is quietly confident of success. Available from next Wednesday [16th May 2012] the drink contains 150ml of fruit with no added sugar, artificial colours or flavours. Marking a first for a burger chain, Fruitizz is one of the recommended five-a-day fruit and veg children should have.

Jill, who has two boys aged nine and 11, revealed she had her mum’s hat on when she first came up with Fruitizz while she was the chain’s marketing manager.

A signal of worthy intent?

But will Fruitizz help the McDonald brand, or will it appear as a worthy signal of intentions, like Coke’s support for Innocent?

The Pope and the Brainstorming Blunder

April 26, 2010

The Pope’s visit to the UK is planned for September, but a controversy has already broken out leading to an apology from the Foreign Office for a set of insulting and derogatory ideas leaked to press. To understand what happened, knowledge of brainstorming is useful

Turns out that the bright young things at the Foreign Office have been getting ideas. Worse, as Sir Humphrey used to say, they have been getting new ideas, which is a particularly dangerous thing for civil servants to do.

Someone had requested a few ideas around the Pope’s visit. Maybe it was part of a wider security exercise. Anyway, a group of people were bought together, and we learn that a brainstorming took place.

Regressiveness in inexperienced groups

It seems unlikely that the group could be considered as skilled at brainstorming. This is important, because a trained group with an experienced moderator behaves rather differently to a less experienced one. Inexperienced groups tend to regress to a more infantile state in which repressed thoughts are released. And in keeping with one brainstorming principle, anything suggested gets recorded. That is actually justifiable on the grounds that more outrageous ideas can be ‘tamed’ to include novelty and potential relevance and feasibility.

My guess is, that under conditions in which free thinking had been encouraged, free association of ideas took place. More accurately, many utterances will be not so much free of constraints, but conditioned reactions to suppressed thoughts. Mention the Pope to such a group and it will induce close associations including religion, faith, The Vatican, and also associations with recent news stories dealing with abortion, birth control, and child abuse.

In the spirit of brainstorming, these words will then trigger even more outlandish and outrageous ideas. Suggestions such as a Pope’s condom, and a visit to an abortion clinic would be quite likely.

The confidentiality of brainstormed ideas

Creative? Creativity researchers would say probably not. Creative ideas have to meet criteria of novelty, relevance, and actionability. Brainstorming is a venerable but rather weak approach to overcoming team-level blocks to creativity. Such techniques have been the subject of some debate for decades regarding if and how they work to promote creativity.

In any event, it is easy to understand how the FO team would have arrived at a set of ideas which included a lot of fantasy remarks of the kind which were leaked to the media. I always advise brainstorming teams to treat the raw output as highly dangerous. (Yes, I’m with Sir Humphrey on this) Even when accompanied by an explanation, outsiders who get the full unedited set of ideas will question the competence or even the temporary sanity of the group. Far better, I suggest, is to treat the full set of ideas as highly confidential, and present to the senior management sponsors only the most promising few ideas which can be acted on. In this case, the confidentiality could be and should have been treated as a matter of some security.

An anti-catholic culture at the FO?

Perhaps it was treated confidentially. There is a possibility that a disaffected member of the brainstorming group may have wanted to blow a whistle about what had been experienced. That doesn’t affect my main points, but would be consistent with a team that had not sorted out the psychological contract at the start, that there may well be some bizarre suggestions made which will not become public.

So there we have it. An anti-catholic plot by members of the FO? There are more convincing possibilities. I would not discount the possibility that some of the ideas came from people who were educated at one or two of our best Catholic Schools. It’s my Jewish friends who tell the best Jewish Jokes… and I don’t think it makes then anti-Semitic.


The controversy seems to have cooled down:

The Pope’s visit to Britain will not be affected by a leaked memo which appeared to mock the Catholic Church, the Vatican has said …The junior civil servant responsible for setting up the brainstorming and circulating its results said in a cover note: “Please protect; these should not be shared externally. The ‘ideal visit’ paper in particular was the product of a brainstorm which took into account even the most far-fetched of ideas.”