If your company holds group brainstorming sessions on a regular basis, but doesn’t have an effective process for evaluating and managing all of the ideas you’ve generated, then you ought to take a look at Solutions Genie 3.2 from DSS Infotech International Ltd. This brainstorming program makes it easy for facilitator-led brainstorming groups to record and organize a large quantity of ideas, evaluate them, and develop action plans for those that are most likely to be successful.
According to the developers of the Solutions Genie, the program is based on a 4-phase process:
When you first start up Solutions Genie, you are greeted by a screen that contains three buttons: Definition, Brainstorming and Action. Oddly, the program only has three main sections, but that’s because phases 2 and 3 are both contained in the Brainstorming area of Solutions Genie. Despite this apparent anomaly, it’s impressive to see a brainstorming software program with such a strong process orientation. Here’s a brief look at each step of the Solutions Genie process:
The project definition dialog box gives you ample room to type a problem definition several paragraphs in length. You can import a variety of file formats into the project description, which means that you can easily incorporate content from a Microsoft Word document into your project definition, for example. After you have saved your project, you can enter a list of team members and their names, job titles, roles and functions, which will be used in later steps of the brainstorming and evaluation processes.
This section of the Solutions Genie consists of a large window with two vertical panes. You enter ideas in the left pane, which displays them in a hierarchical outline format. This format is very useful in the post-brainstorming phase — when the facilitator is grouping or cloning ideas, for example.
The right pane displays your ideas in a visual format that is something like octagonal Post-it notes. The program’s developer say that visually representing ideas like this helps groups to be more creative when brainstorming ideas.
Before your team begins brainstorming, it must first create groups and sub-groups in the idea outliner. For example, a group may consist of a general operational function where you need to brainstorm solutions, such as “sales” or “customer support.” Sub-groups within it can be used to define questions or issues, such as “Where does the problem occur?” “When does it occur?” and “How can we improve in this operational area?” This method of deconstructing and defining your challenge is very effective, because it can help you to identify root causes and sub-problems that you might not otherwise be aware of.
Once you have developed a basic structure for your brainstorming session, you and your team can begin brainstorming and recording ideas. When you click on the program’s light bulb toolbar button, a dialogue box pops up, and prompts you to enter a title and optional description for each idea. You can also use the “Enter” key to quickly add ideas without using your computer’s mouse. Your ideas appear both in the outline and in colored, octagonal “Post-its” in the other vertical pane. The color of these icons are assigned by the program, based upon the group to which each idea belongs.
Solutions Genie doesn’t provide any “idea trigger” tools to help you generate ideas, which seemed a bit odd to me at first. But when I checked with the program’s developer, I was told that idea triggers were left out of the Solutions Genie to give it more universal appeal. The assumption is that facilitators will supply their own idea stimulation exercises.
If you want to set a time limit on your brainstorming session, you can do so with the program’s built-in timer.
Solutions Genie provides an impressive, multi-faceted toolset for evaluating and prioritizing ideas, located, oddly enough, within in the brainstorming section of the program. Facilitators can define which team members will participate in the idea filtering/prioritization phase, or create new users to participate only in the idea evaluation process. Evaluation and prioritization tools included in the Solutions Genie are:
Multi-voting: Team members “vote” on the ideas they like the best; those ideas that receive multiple votes are considered to be the most promising ones.
Criteria matrix: The facilitator uses this tool to develop criteria for evaluating ideas, and can assign weights to each one. This value is then multiplied by the numerical value that team members give to each idea to calculate a weighted score for each idea and criterion.
Criteria matrix selection: Here, the program tallies the weighted total for each idea, and displays the weighted total and average, as well as each team member’s individual weighted score for each idea. The team then selects the ideas it believes are most valuable using a checkmark system.
Decision grid: This exercise displays a visual representation of each idea and its criteria on an X-Y grid, to help you identify the ideas with the greatest potential. In other words, you can assign one criterion to the X axis and the other criterion to the Y axis, with scales of 0 to 10 corresponding to the range of possible weights. Those ideas that score the highest will naturally be positioned in quadrant 1, the upper right-hand quadrant (scoring high on both scales).
Idea ranking: In this exercise, the facilitator has team members view a list of ideas, and rank them from most important to least important. For example, if you have a list of six ideas, each team member would rank them from 1 to 6 (each number can only be used once). This exercise helps teams to develop a more finite ranking of ideas than a “yes/no” vote.
Final selection: In this exercise, team members are asked to consider each idea in terms of its feasibility. This is measured by putting each idea through what is called a “force field analysis.” This evaluation technique helps you to identify the driving forces, which complement the execution of an idea, and the restraining forces, which may hinder the implementation of an idea. The FFA appears as a grid, with columns where you can identify the drivers and restraining forces for that idea, and assign each one a weight. This dialog box also contains a “feasible” checkbox where you can designate an idea as feasible, if its driving forces outweigh its restraining forces.
Additional options: If you want to prioritize ideas outside of the Solutions Genie, you can easily export them at any time to an Excel spreadsheet. You can also by-pass the idea filtering stage and move ideas directly to an Action plan, by dropping them from the brainstorming window directly into the “Action” window.
In this section of the Solutions Genie, the facilitator assigns ideas to team members and other people for implementation. The implementation progress of each idea can be monitored using a Gantt chart. These charts can be saved as bitmap images, for integration into reports and other documents.
You can brainstorm over an organization’s computer network or the Internet using a special multi-user version of the Solutions Genie. Or, participants can capture ideas in an Excel spreadsheet and e-mail it to the facilitator, who can import these ideas into a centralized brainstorming session in Solutions Genie. This flexibility also extends to the idea filtering and prioritizing processes.
The Solutions Genie provides an impressive set of tools and resources to help individuals and teams to evaluate and prioritize ideas with a level of precision not seen in other brainstorming software programs. Its “action plan” capabilities also make it a unique application that brainstorming facilitators should find very useful.
However, its proprietary interface does require a modest learning curve, because its tools and concepts may be unfamiliar to some users. In particular, I found the brainstorming screen, with its busy arrangement of outlined ideas and “Post-it” notes, to be daunting at first.
Also, it seems a bit odd that, although the program is based on a four-step brainstorming process, there are only three buttons on the Solution Genie’s main screen. I recommend that the developers consider giving brainstorming and idea evaluation their own sections (and navigation buttons) in future versions.
Despite these sometimes mystifying issues, Solutions Genie does come with a tutorial that will familiarize you with its key concepts and functionality. It helped me to get up to speed fairly quickly.
You can purchase the Solutions Genie for $129 from the DSS InfoTech Web site; a free 30-day trial download version is also available.