Vyvyn Lazonga was a tattoo artist with a business problem. She needed to find ways to promote her line of cosmetic tattooing -- techniques to disguise scars, apply permanent eyeliner, and even out skin color. Part of her problem, though, was that there aren't exactly legions of professional groups where tattooists can go for peer advice.
Enter the Brain Exchange (BE), a San Francisco-based group that uses the fertile art of brainstorming to help people solve "problems" by changing them into "challenges," whether those problems are entrepreneurial, career, creative, or personal.
When she arrived at her first Brain Exchange meeting in an uptown office building in San Francisco, the tattooist encountered an eclectic circle of several dozen people -- businessmen, musicians, chimney sweeps, professional dog walkers, even Ralph of Ralph's Homemade Chili Sauce -- all ready to brainstorm any problems presented.
Lazonga volunteered. In 15 minutes of undivided attention, she scribbled frantically as the group stormed her with ideas, from the mundane (putting together a business wardrobe and calling card) to the insane (tattooing a press release onto her arms and walking into a newspaper office).
"I got great ideas, though," Lazonga recalls, "even if it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer number."
Open to anyone willing to pay $5 to attend their weekly meetings, the Brain Exchange has brought the concept of brainstorming out of the corporate board room and into the public domain. Their sessions have been so successful that they've sparked offshoot groups using their name from Southern California to Seattle.
While the word "movement" might be overstating it, several other so-called "public-access" brainstorming groups have popped up in the past few years, particularly on the West coast. Rick Crandall, director of Community Entrepreneurs Organization of San Mateo, Calif., attributes this to the "entrepreneurial revolution." Brainstorming, he says, "is just one tool for tapping into others' ideas to help you develop your own."
Pat Veling, founder of a Los Angeles-area group called Think Inc., adds that "we're all creative, but even the most creative ideas can be improved many times by letting others have at it. The philosophy here is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
At gatherings of sometimes as many as 50 or 75 people, these groups demonstrate what can happen when the withering effect of premature criticism is removed from problem-solving. The result is a typical brainstorm meeting: spirited, prolific, cathartic and contagious.
"The BE is so open, positive, and nonjudgmental," says tattoo artist Lazonga. "No one frowned. They just want to give away ideas. I've never seen anything like it."
Neither have a lot of people in cities up and down the West Coast -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle and Vancouver Island -- where the BE now holds meetings in everything from private homes to offices of companies like Merrill Lynch. Their mailing list of 800 people includes executives, chiropractors and street performers. Their corporate clients keep their business thriving, says Joy-Lily, co-director of the Brain Exchange, enabling them to "keep costs low so anyone can afford it."
Brainstorming was popularized during the 1940s and '50s, when Alex Osborne, an adman with the Madison Avenue firm of Batten, Barten, Durstine & Osborne (BBD&O), introduced the more contemporary concept as a new form of corporate problem-solving. By the end of the '50s, brainstorming -- occasionally referred to as buzz sessions, idearamas and imagineering -- began to fall out of favor. But by then the list of corporations that employed it read like an honor-roll of corporate America: IBM, General Motors, U.S. Steel, the U.S. Army and General Electric.
GE found that the flow of ideas increased up to 300 percent during brainstorming sessions, and BBD&O even had a Vice President in Charge of Brainstorming, who held all such meetings in a yellow room, since yellow was considered conducive to thought.
The public-access groups, however, differ from corporate brainstorming sessions, says Veling, in that there doesn't exist the "natural inbreeding" that occurs when everyone in the group works for the same company, comes from the same division, and has one problem to solve.
"Here, the only agenda people have in common is the process of brainstorming," Veling says. "People are not afraid to come up with wild ideas because their boss isn't sitting there."
The variety of the group and the fast-paced nature of the process allow participants to go home with, if not 100 ideas, at least enough to grease the wheels. When Rebecca Searles, a San Francisco street musician, came to a BE meeting last year in the hopes of finding ways to get her name "out there," the group first helped her get the problem into proper brainstorming shape.
In Searles' case, the question ended up as "How many names can I come up with for my street music business?" The group stormed her problem in commando fashion, firing ideas fast and short: Drum Shticks, Duets in Run, De-Composer, Keys West, Half Note Will Travel, Music with a Pitch, Concert-ed Efforts, Band in San Francisco, etc.
The Brain Exchange, according to co-director Lee Glickstein, a humor writer and owner of a word-processing service, is a "playful think tank." It is dedicated to proving the scarcity-of-possibilities assumption false," says Glickstein. "We believe that most of the creative contingencies in our future are unknown to us now. We nurture a stimulating, supportive environment receptive to that knowledge."
In San Francisco, the BE's weekly meetings begin with a go-round introduction during which participants take care of what Joy-Lily, also a textile artist and humor writer, refers to as their "hidden agenda." If you're there in hopes of finding a business partner or a baby sitter, or have a service to offer, or a reigning passion, you say so -- briefly. This is the "networking portion" of the show and, notes Joy- Lily, business connections made during meetings are consummated over time.
The eclecticism of the group, brainstormers say, can be a distinct advantage, considering that "experts" often seem to know only what can't be done. The naive often have the best ideas. "Public access" groups like to call theirs "outpatient brainstorming."
Criticizing ideas is taboo. All brainstorming ideas are stated in the imperative, not as questions like "What about this?" or "Have you tried that?" This stage of the process is called "wool-gathering" and the wilder and woollier the ideas, the better.
In this generative stage, says Glickstein, the more ideas you create, the more good ideas you're likely to end up with. During the '50s, whenever someone in a brainstorming session said, "It won't work," the chief brainstormer clanged a schoolmarm's bell or flashed a red light.
At Brain Exchange meetings, someone will simply yell out, "Yes But!" and the point is made.
Yes, but ... What do you do with all those ideas when you go home?
All brainstormers are instructed to ask four questions of each idea: What is good about this idea? What are its problems? How can they be overcome? What new ideas does it suggest?
Also, Glickstein and Joy-Lily try to persuade brainstormers that the creative process doesn't end with an idea. It starts with one. It is as important to be imaginative in applying ideas as in acquiring them.
Although they hold meetings several times a week, and travel several months out of the year starting new groups, people still approach them after meetings, says Glickstein, asking, "Why don't we have meetings all the time? Now that could be a problem.
Gregg Levoy is a California writer.