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Brainsteering: A book review by Bob Morris

Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas
Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne
HarperBusiness/HaroerCollins (2011)


How to come up with new and better ideas all day, every day, and even on demand?

Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne respond to that question by providing in this volume an abundance of valuable information, insights, caveats, and recommendations that quickly identify the “what” and then focus intensively on the “why” and “how” of what they characterize as “a better approach to breakthrough ideas.” Heaven knows there are dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of books already in print that make the same claim. My own opinion is that the Coynes’ approach is comprehensive, cohesive, and cost-effective…and one of the best I have as yet encountered.

Their approach is research- and results-driven, based on two core principles: (1) “If you ask the right questions, answers and good ideas soon follow” and (2) “The right process for consistently generating breakthrough ideas looks very different from what [most people have] probably been taught.” In other words, asking the right questions and following the right process will “steer” the brain to the right answers.

It is worth noting that the material provided is based on revelations generated by more than 200 McKinsey client projects, refined further by other  real-world applications of insights and practices. The Coynes come across to me as being diehard pragmatists who are determined to share everything they have learned about establishing and then sustaining a process by which to generate new and better ideas all day, every day, and even on demand.

The exemplary breakthroughs they cite include easily portable personal computers (How to create one that fits into an overhead bin on an airplane?), direct sales of personal computers (How to by-pass costs and complications of the retail channel?), and large-scale “category killer” stores (Can hardware and office supplies be sold the same way Toys R Us sells its merchandise?) The visionary founders and co-founders of the most successful start-ups (e.g. Apple, Google, Facebook) all claim that they knew which questions to ask, how to answer them, and then how to apply effectively what the answers revealed.

The Coynes organize their material within four Parts: First, they explain how to know what the right questions are and how/where to answer them; next, they explain how to maximize what they call “personal ideation skills” such as MECE (see Pages 72-73) and using analysis to identify anomalies; then they explain how to “lead others to great ideas”; and finally, in Chapter 10, they explain how to develop “your own billion-dollar idea.” They identify and then discuss four principles that can help to guide and inform the development of a breakthrough idea, whatever its monetary value proves to be.

Along the way, the Coynes explain what differentiates the Brainsteering approach from any others. For example, they note that it “exploits two tendencies that cause most people to miss certain kinds of insights. The first tendency is to be biased toward believing that any well-functioning process doesn’t bear questioning…The second tendency is to simplify a complex world through norms and averages. People’s lives are complicated. In fact, every element of their lives seems complicated.”

I think the Coynes were shrewd when they decided to frame their material within a series of questions that serve two separate but related and especially important purposes: They stimulate, indeed require disciplined thinking by their reader and thus encourage the reader to interact with the material; also, the questions serve as examples of the kinds of questions – and sequences of questions – that must be asked and then answered, not only about how to generate breakthrough ideas but also about a book such as this that claims to offer a better process to do that.


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