Pulp Innovation XXXIV: Never Conduct a Brainstorming Session Without the Rules

Marlowe heads to the Levantine Corporate Offices to facilitate a brainstorming session with the goal of generating incremental and disruptive ideas to explore as new products in the programmable products division. First, he lays out some ground rules.

The alarm was rather insistent, and I rolled over and shut it off.  Clearly, based on the sunlight arching through the room, it was time to get vertical.  I opened my eyes and ran my tongue over my teeth, tasting the remnants of Irish whiskey and stale cigarettes.  I never claimed to be a morning person, and I’d left the corporate scene for several reasons, one of which was a kindly persistence on the part of my management to see me bright and chipper by 8:30am most days.  That was simply not part of my social contract.

As an innovation consultant, I was expected to be a bit unpredictable and to have a bit of whimsy.  Why would anyone pay money for a boring innovation consultant?  So, that meant I didn’t have to punch an 8:30am clock most days.  However, on days like today, with a scheduled event at Levantine, like it or not I was expected to be on time, ready to go with a quick wit and a professional demeanor.  Luckily this was expected of me only periodically in my consulting role.

After the usual ablutions and preparations, I uncrumpled my suit pants and pulled a jacket from a hook on the back of the door.  The face looking back at me in the mirror by the front door seemed vaguely familiar, a bit more worn around the edges than I’d remembered.  I took my portfolio, keys and sun glasses and headed out to face the corporate world.

Once you’ve left the regular commute, it seems almost impossible to wrap your head around the fact that people face this soul rendering drive every day.  For me, once a week or more to face such a congested, angry, slow moving mob would have had me contemplating the view from the top of the downtown skyscrapers, putting Newton’s theories to the test.  Nine to five five days a week, these folks are wired very differently from me.

I arrived and found a choice visitor parking spot at Levantine.  Its corporate offices sit in an office park that resembled a lush botanical garden, or a tropical resort.  Even at that early point in the morning, hundreds of gardeners were working to ensure the steel and glass buildings were surrounded by palm trees, neatly mowed grass and freshly blooming flowers.  It was as if the headquarters was trying to disguise itself as a Cancun vacation retreat.  All that was missing was the surf, sand and twelve small shops hawking “I got drunk in Cancun” T-shirts.

I fumbled with my materials – the portfolio, markers, tape, toolbox and other items for the brainstorm – and made my way to the cavernous reception area, where a guard gave me the frozen stare.  How anyone can have less personality or enthusiasm for their job, I don’t know.  Perhaps he, too, had just left the morning rush hour commute and was only now recovering his humanity.  He asked for my name, my organization and my blood type, and gave me a flimsy plastic badge.  He poked through my materials for the brainstorming session, looked at me as if I needed to have my head examined, and called Marge to let her know I was in the lobby.

I took my seat in an fashionable but very comfortable chair made by designers in Sweden for business lobbies in America, where one is supposed to view the furniture but never actually sit on it, and turned my attention to Electronics Weekly, that being the most enticing magazine on offer on the glasstop table.  Fortunately, before I was able to obtain my undergraduate electrical engineering degree from the first issue of the journal, Marge poked her head through the doorway and called me in.  I smiled at the guard, hoping to acknowledge my value proposition and he shot me a look that convinced me he hadn’t lost his humanity on the highway.  From his stare it was clear he’d never had any to begin with.

Marge greeted me in her usual way – that is to say that Marge is a hugger and gets a bit put out if we don’t engage in at least the ritual one arm around the neck.  She’d prefer the two arms around, and occasionally the full on Mitterand – a peck on each cheek – but I draw the line on this faux familiarity.  Marge is a great client and a nice person, but sometimes I received more overt affection from her than I did on my second and third dates with women I wanted to get to know better.  Plus, it’s difficult to hug someone when you are simultaneously holding a door open with one foot, and clutching a briefcase, a toolbox and a smattering of other materials.  The kabuki dance consisted of Marge trying to decide whether to hug first and offer assistance later, and me offering Marge some of my burden and anticipating the hug that preceded all of our meetings.  We probably looked like two large birds in an elaborate mating ritual to those innocent passersby in the lobby.

“Sam, you look great.  We are so glad to have you back today to lead our brainstorming.”

“Marge, always good to see you.  Where are we headed?”

“Just down the hall here.  You remember the room we used in April, when we did the session on market opportunities?”

“Yes” I said, handing off some of my materials to her and walking in the general direction.

“I’ve managed to convince the facilities team that we should have permanent use of that room for innovation and brainstorming.  It’s a great room, with lots of light, big and very configurable.”

“That’s great, Marge.  It is a much better location than some of the other conference rooms.”  Most of which were similar to early World War II submarines, usually the same color and with the same vague smells as those tin can death traps.

“Everyone should be here by 8:30.  I’ll introduce the session and the goals, and then you can take it from there.”

“Great” I said, finally reaching my destination and ending my period of employment as a Nepalese sherpa.  I unloaded all of my materials for the session, and noted that the room had several flip-charts, markers and other materials that would be useful.  Marge noticed my glance.

“Yeah, we’re getting better about having the right materials available in these rooms.  That’s another reason we wanted a permanent spot.  That way we can outfit the room to our needs.”

She was saying this as I opened the toolbox and started extracting a range of balls, Play-Do, an Etch-A-Sketch, a Slinky and a number of other tools that looked like the spillage of an eight year old’s toy box from the back of the closet.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got any of these about?” I said to her with a grin.

“Not yet, but that’s our next purchase” she said.  In our first session, lo these several years ago, Marge had been very concerned, expressed with a raised eyebrow and a slight sideways frown, when I started unpacking the toys.  Once she’d seen their impact in an ideation session, she’d become a vociferous believer.  She had a Mr. Potato Head and an Etch-A-Sketch on her desk ever since.

“Everybody loves the toys” I said.

After distributing these around the room, I pulled a set of laminated cards from my portfolio, and Marge helped me tack these up around the room.

“This is another thing we need to do to fully dress out the room” she said, eyeing my brainstorming rules.

“Never conduct a brainstorming session without the rules” I said.

At this point the participants were staring to drift into the room, coffee in one hand, BlackBerry in the other.  The folks who had been with us before I recognized and nodded to or shook hands with.  A few people who had not participated with us before entered, glanced around the room, sought out Marge to ensure they were in the right place, and took their seats, eyeing the toys and rules and making nervous small talk with others around the table.

Marge called the meeting to order.

“As you all know, we are here today to brainstorm about new product opportunities in our ASIC and FPGA product areas.  All of you should have received the prep material” most heads nodded at this “and should be prepared to participate.  For those of you who don’t know Sam Marlowe, he will facilitate our session today.  Our goal is to generate some incremental and disruptive ideas to explore as new products in our programmable products division.  You’ve seen the material on what our competitors are doing.  Any questions before we get started?”

There didn’t appear to be any, at least none anyone was willing to voice at that stage.  Marge turned to me.  “Take it away” she said.

I stood, and walked over to close the conference room door.  I do this for the effect it has of sealing the team off from the rest of the world.  “While we are in this room” I said “we are generating ideas.  We have the freedom to generate any idea – no matter how crazy or counter to what Levantine does.  We have all the money in the world, and can violate any rule of physics.  Give yourself that freedom when we start thinking about the task in front of us.”

I continued.  “This brainstorming session has been carefully planned.  You’ve received the background and key questions we want to answer.  Now, I’m going to ask you to start generating ideas in just a minute.  My role will be to facilitate the discussion – to ask questions, to kickstart the conversation and to help the team stay on track.  Marge will be documenting the ideas.  You’ll notice, tacked up on the walls, a set of brainstorming rules.  Yes, good brainstorming is based on rules. One of those rules is to grant yourselves the ability to think objectively and to break the rules that govern you outside this room.  Other rules:  generate lots of ideas.  Don’t judge ideas as we generate them.  Generate wild ideas.  Don’t try to “own” an idea.  My job will be to reinforce these rules as we progress.”

I stopped to let that sink in.  “In front of you you’ll see some toys, which some of you have already picked up.  You are welcome to ‘play’ with those toys if they help you think more creatively.  You are welcome to get up and move around if that helps you think creatively.  You can draw an idea if that is helpful.  Our goal is to stimulate your thinking and remove roadblocks.  Before we begin, are there any questions?”

Some nervous chuckles and some experienced grins.  OK, here we go.

About the author:


Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.

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