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Brainstorming vs Brainsteering

brainstorming McKinsey
New answer on Oct 31, 2023
5 Answers
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Anonymous A asked on Jan 05, 2020

McKinsey's approach to problem solving is brainsteering (a top-down approach we learn when we do cases). IDEO and Design Thinking have a bottom-up approach where you see more traditional brainstorming (e.g., Affinity Diagramming in Design Thinking:

I'm applying for McKinsey Digital - I do think that McKinsey also focuses on designing products and customer experiences for consumers.

I have two questions
- Is this open and unstructured brainstorming methodology IDEO and design firms use relevant at MBB firms
- How does MBB firms adopt Design Thinking - is the experience I have with Design Thinking something that I should bring up during the interview?

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Content Creator
replied on Jan 06, 2020
McKinsey | Awarded professor at Master in Management @ IE | MBA at MIT |+180 students coached | Integrated FIT Guide aut


Indeed both of them are used, just at different stages/seniorities during the engagements.

When you do LOPs (letter of proposal, so the docs you do to sell an engagement to a client) and present it, it´s where you could see most brainsteering.

However, once the project kicks-off, the operational day-to-day work has more to do with brainstorming.

Personally, I learned about Design Thinking when I was working in McK -we were even given a course by an expert- and then applied it.

Hope it helps!



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Content Creator
replied on Jan 05, 2020
McKinsey | NASA | top 10 FT MBA professor for consulting interviews | 6+ years of coaching

the top-down brainsteering is used during the first problem-solving sessions with partners, to identify a structured approach to the problem. It is the one simulated during case interview and it will be important to practice.
The bottom-up brainstorming instead is adopted during the engagements by the team, once the structure is clear.

Hope it helps,

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Anonymous A on Jan 05, 2020

Thank you, Antonello! Good to confirm that McKinsey also does bottom-up brainstorming too. It is easy to think that McKinsey only does top-down brainsteering. Do you have a rough idea about how much top-down brainsteering you will do at McKinsey compared to bottom-up brainstorming? I want to communicate in the interview that I really appreciate the top-down thinking "e.g., lets focus on fast and healthy snacks as an outcome". I see a clear value of brainsteering with partners. I also see the value of bottom-up traditional brainstorming in questions like "what are the customer pain-points engaging with this product", "how might we change change the user experience, how might we prototype and pitch ideas to solve the customer pain-points" (typical design thinking activities). Would this be something a McKinsey interviewer would relate to?

Antonello on Jan 06, 2020

It depends on the project, but top-down approach is used mainly at the beginning of the engagement, in case of a new scope and when you draft the document for the final Steering Committee.

Cabal replied on Dec 06, 2022
I am a developer

According to the authors of Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas, brainstorming doesn’t deliver what everyone thinks it does. They argue that brainstorming produces a lot of ideas that aren’t all that great because: The process is too random. There’s no way to really drill down into the most promising ideas. People come with their pet ideas. Powerful people and loud mouths dominate the conversations. Instead, they suggest a process that starts with asking the right question(s). Give a small group of people time to adequately discuss the questions, and then let the actionable ideas flow from that discussion. After reading the book, here’s my understanding of how it works. Figure out what the real problem is that needs solving. Determine the criteria that will be applied when evaluating ideas. Select the right questions that will lead the group to some productive ideas. Choose the right people to participate in your brainsteering workshop. Pre-assign people to small groups of 3-5. Assign each group one question. Let them chew on it for 30-45 minutes. Ask small groups to offer only their best and most viable ideas. Collect all ideas and pass along to decision makers who will either reject, implement now, implement later, or give it more study. Communicate decisions back to the groups. Since the whole process hinges on really great questions, here are five areas of inquiry that often produce these kinds of questions. Identifying unsolved customer problems. De-averaging users and activities. Exploring unexpected successes. Imagining perfection. Discovering unrecognized “headroom.” Challenging the rules we assume must be followed. Some of my favorite right questions that the authors offered included the following: Who needs only a small subset of our total product/service? What would we do differently if we could trust our customers not to cheat us? What distinguishes our top five referral sources from the bottom five? What activities might our customers prefer to do themselves if they could? The authors from their observation of more than 150 companies in industries ranging from retailing and education to banking and communications have developed a practical approach “brainsteering,” which requires more preparation than traditional brainstorming. The results are worthwhile: better ideas in business situations as diverse as inventing new products and services, attracting new customers, designing more efficient business processes, or reducing costs. A company or its managers can significantly improve the odds of success by following these seven steps of brainsteering: 1.     Know your organization’s decision making criteria Brainstorming ideas or “Think outside the box!” are unhelpful if they are beyond the scope of external circumstances or the company’s policies. The right way for a company and its managers is to spark creative thinking in their teams is by understanding (and in some cases shaping) the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about the resulting ideas. For e.g., a bank wasted a full day’s worth of brainstorming because the session’s best ideas required changing IT systems, but the senior management had recently “locked down” the IT agenda for the next 18 months. Likewise, what constitutes an acceptable idea? At a different bank, workshop planners collaborated with senior managers on a highly specific definition tailored to meet immediate needs. Good ideas require no more than $5,000 per branch in investment and would generate incremental profits quickly. Further, while three categories of ideas—new products, new sales approaches, and pricing changes—were welcome, senior management would balk at ideas that required new regulatory approvals. The result: productive brainsteering sessions delivered exactly what the company wanted: a fistful of ideas, in all three target categories that were practical, affordable, and profitable within the fiscal year. 2.     Ask the right questions Research shows that traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques are inferior to approaches that have a defined structure. Structure the workshop around a series of “right questions” that your team will explore in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions. Identify questions with two characteristics: Force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. Why? Because whenever you look for new ways to attack an old problem— whether it’s lowering your company’s operating costs or buying your spouse a birthday gift—you naturally gravitate toward thinking patterns and ideas that worked in the past. Research shows that, over time, you’ll come up with fewer good ideas, despite increased effort. Changing your participants’ perspective will shake up their thinking. (For more on this, see “Sparking creativity in teams: An executive’s guide,” April 2011 in Right questions limit the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes. A consumer electronics company looking to develop new products might start with questions such as “What’s the biggest avoidable hassle our customers endure?” and “Who uses our product in ways we never expected?”  A health insurance provider looking to cut costs might ask, “What complexity do we plan for daily that, if eliminated, would change the way we operate?” and “In which areas is the efficiency of a given department ‘trapped’ by outdated restrictions placed on it by company policies?” It’s best to come up with 15 to 20 such right questions for a typical workshop attended by about 20 people. Choose the questions carefully, as they will form the heart of your workshop—your participants will be discussing them intensively in small subgroups during a series of sessions. 3.     Choose the right people Choose people who can answer the right questions you’re asking. Sounds obvious! What is not obvious is in many traditional brainstorming sessions, participants are often chosen with less regard for their specific knowledge than for their prominence on the org chart. Choose people with firsthand, “in the trenches” knowledge, as a catalog retailer did for a brainsteering workshop on improving bad-debt collections. I have to do these things while developing an app with the help of mobile app development company. During the workshop, when participants were discussing the question “What’s changed in our operating environment since we last redesigned our processes?” a frontline collections manager remarked, “Well, death has become the new bankruptcy.” A few participants laughed knowingly, but the senior managers in the room were perplexed. Further probing revealed some customers who fell behind on their payments would falsely claim bankruptcy when speaking with a collections rep, figuring that the company wouldn’t pursue the matter because of the legal headaches involved. While other unscrupulous borrowers instructed household members to tell the agent they had died—a tactic that halted collections efforts quickly, since reps were uncomfortable pressing the issue. A line manager’s presence in the workshop uncovered an opportunity and what he proposed became the solution: instructing the reps to sensitively, but firmly, question the recipient of the call for more specific information if the rep suspected a ruse. Dishonest borrowers would invariably hang up if asked to identify themselves or to provide other basic information, and the collections efforts could continue. 4.     Divide and conquer For fruitful discussions like the one the catalog retailer did earlier, have participants conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups of three to five people. Each subgroup focuses on a single question for a full 30 minutes. Why three to five people? The social norm in groups of this size is to speak up, whereas the norm in a larger group is to stay quiet. When you assign people to subgroups, isolate “idea crushers.” These people come in three varieties: bosses, “big mouths,” and subject matter experts who are otherwise suitable for the workshop but, intentionally or not, prevent others from suggesting good ideas.  The boss’s presence makes people hesitant to express unproven ideas and is damaging if participants span multiple organizational levels. Big mouths take up air time, intimidate the less confident, and give everyone else an excuse to be lazy. Subject matter experts squelch new ideas because everyone defers to their presumed superior wisdom, even if they are biased or have incomplete knowledge of the issue at hand. By quarantining the idea crushers you’ll free the other subgroups to think more creatively. Finally, take the 15 to 20 questions you prepared earlier and divide them among the subgroups—about 5 questions each, since it’s unproductive and too time consuming to have all subgroups answer every question. Whenever possible, assign a specific question to the subgroup you consider best equipped to handle it. 5.     On your mark, get set, go! When participants arrive and before the division into subgroups, orient them so that your expectations about what they will—and won’t—accomplish are clear. Each subgroup thoughtfully considers and discusses a single question for a half hour. No other idea from any source—no matter how good—should be mentioned during a subgroup’s session. If anyone thinks of a “silver bullet” solution that’s outside the scope of discussion, they should write it down and share it later. Prepare your participants for the likelihood that when a subgroup attacks a question, it may generate only 2 or 3 worthy ideas. The going can feel slow at first and a bit discouraging, so reassure participants that by the end of the day, after all the subgroups have met several times, there will be no shortage of good ideas. If possible share “signpost examples” before the start of each session—real questions previous groups used, along with success stories, to motivate participants and show them how right questions based approach help. One warning: no matter how clever your participants, no matter how insightful your questions, the first five minutes of any subgroup’s brainsteering session feels like typical brainstorming as people test their pet ideas or rattle off superficial new ones. But participants should persevere. Better thinking soon emerges as the subgroups try to improve shallow ideas while sticking to the assigned right questions 6.     Wrap it up By day’s end, a typical subgroup has produced perhaps 15 interesting ideas for further exploration and 20 participants’ team has collectively generated up to 60 ideas. What now? One; don’t make the group choose the best ideas from the pile, as the participants won’t always have an executive-level understanding of the criteria and considerations that must go into prioritizing ideas for actual investment. Second; picking best ideas or winners can also be demotivating, if the real decision makers overrule the group’s favorite choices later. Instead, have each subgroup privately narrow its own list of ideas to a top few and then share all the leading ideas with the full group to motivate and inspire participants. Without picking a winner, close the workshop on a high note and describe to the participants exactly what steps will be taken to choose the winning ideas and how they will learn about the final decisions. 7.     Follow up quickly Decisions and other follow-up activities should be quick and thorough for the best ideas generated. The president, provost, and department heads of a US university, for example, announced before a brainsteering workshop that a full staff meeting would be held the morning after to discuss the various cost-savings ideas it had generated. At the meeting, the senior leaders sorted ideas into four buckets: move immediately to implementation planning, decide today to implement at the closest appropriate time (say, the beginning of the next academic year), assign a group to research the idea further, or reject right away. Hope this will help everyone.

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replied on Jan 06, 2020
McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School


I would not discuss those topics in the interview unless you specifically know that the person you are talking to is responsible for design thinking. McKinsey Digital interview is very similar to generalist McKinsey interviews and you will be mostly interviewed by the generalist consultants who don't necessarily understand those concepts


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Anonymous A on Jan 06, 2020

Hi, so mentioning experience with Design Thinking would not be appreciated by generalist consultants during an interview?


Content Creator
replied on Oct 31, 2023
#1 rated MBB & McKinsey Coach
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Clara gave the best answer


Content Creator
McKinsey | Awarded professor at Master in Management @ IE | MBA at MIT |+180 students coached | Integrated FIT Guide aut
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