Jeff Bezos and the Power of Brainstorming: “We Can Come Up With a Lot of Very Bad Ideas”

By Jack Limpert

From Bezos Prime, a Fortune article by Adam Lashinsky about Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and the Washington Post:

Sometimes Bezos’s creativity gets the better of him. Prakash says the owner suggested a gamelike feature that would allow a reader who didn’t enjoy an article to pay to remove its vowels. He called it “disemvoweling,” and the concept was to allow another reader to pay to restore the missing letters. The idea didn’t go far, Prakash says, noting that “Marty wasn’t very keen.” Bezos, an unrepentant believer in the power of brainstorming, says, “Working together with other smart people in front of a whiteboard, we can come up with a lot of very bad ideas.”
Bezos is kidding about the very bad ideas—brainstorming is a great way for editors and writers to come up with good story ideas. Here’s an earlier post on ways to do it.
At a magazine, good ideas are the difference between success and failure, between stories that get talked about and stories that fall flat.

My first rule of good magazine stories came from Don Hewitt, for 40 years the producer of television’s 60 Minutes. He said a good story is an idea, not a subject. Newspapers can do subjects, not magazines.

How does an editor get good ideas?

Clay Felker at New York magazine was known for circulating at events and dinners in the evening and then coming in the next morning with the latest on this-is-what-people -are-talking-about.

Lots of good ideas come from writers who have beats, who are out talking with cops or lawyers, politicians or physicians, to find out what they’re talking about.

I was a believer in brainstorming—an approach easy to misuse.

My first rule: Three, four, and five are the magic numbers. Keep the group small enough so that everyone takes part.

Get six or more people together and it’s a meeting. At meetings, I often found the smartest people talked the least. They’d sit, sometimes with a bit of a half-smile, as the talkers held forth.

When setting up a brainstorming session, let those taking part know the focus a day or two in advance—are we talking about good political stories, about what kind of short profiles the magazine needs, about how to improve the magazine’s design?

Don’t have everyone from the same level on the masthead. Mix a young person or two in with one or two senior people. It’s a way to keep everyone at the magazine involved and to let senior people get a better fix on new staff.

And, of course, the most important rule of brainstorming: There are no bad ideas. No putting down of anyone for throwing out an unusual idea. The off-the-wall ideas sometimes are the best.

And with a small group, silences can develop and nobody gets nervous about it. We’re thinking, we’re thinking.

Speak Your Mind