Brainstorms, thought showers or ideation sessions – call them what you will – can be fun, fulfilling and fruitful or damp, dismal and demotivating. It all depends on how they are run. Let’s brush up on your brainstorming skills with a short quiz. Here are some things to think about before your next brainstorm meeting. Try these questions then check your answers below:
Ideally between 6 and 10. Fewer than six and you may not have enough diversity of input. More than 10 and you may well have problems managing the flow of ideas – people get frustrated in larger groups because they cannot be heard and the quieter ones will give up. So if you have 16 people say – divide into two groups of 8 and see who comes up with the best ideas.
The key thing you need is diversity. If you put together the same group who have always looked at this issue then they will probably come up with the same old ideas. Sprinkle in a few outsiders.It is good to have young and old, male and female, fresh into the organisation and experienced. Why not consider inviting a client, a supplier or someone from a completely different part of the business? Look to include a maverick who will challenge your thinking.
It depends how complex the issue is, how many methods you plan to use and whether you need to do some problem analysis work first. For a regular brainstorm meeting where the problem is reasonably well defined then an hour is plenty. In any event it is better to have a short, high energy meeting than a long rambling one.
People are generally brighter and fresher in the morning. So why not start at 8.30 with coffee and muffins before they can get distracted with emails, phone calls and today’s crises.
The first phase is idea generation and the second phase is idea evaluation and selection. In the first phase you use divergent thinking and you want lots of ideas. Judgment is suspended and all ideas are welcomed and recorded. In the second phase you use convergent thinking and critical analysis to whittle down the ideas to a handful that will be carried forward. (If you need to do some problem analysis work then that becomes the first of three phases).
The best answer is to have a skilled external facilitator. This is someone experienced, neutral, enthusiastic and with good hand writing! They manage the flow of ideas by encouraging everyone to contribute. They intervene if some people become too dominant or take the meeting in wrong directions. They can use a variety of methods to keep ideas flowing. If you cannot get an external facilitator choose someone enthusiastic and neutral on the issues. If their writing is not so good then delegate someone else as chartwriter.
The traditional method is to write all ideas on flip charts and to number them. An increasingly popular alternative is to use post-it notes. You then have the choice of one person writing or everyone writing. Both methods work provided everyone is aware of all the ideas – so call them out as you stick them up. Post-it notes can be messy during the idea generation phase but they are very handy at the idea evaluation stage when they can be easily moved around and categorised. A third option is to use software. One person enters the ideas on a laptop and they are projected onto a big screen for everyone to see. There are software packages specifically for this.
This is a difficult one. It depends on the issue and the manager. A forceful, dominant manager can inhibit people from voicing unorthodox ideas. On the other hand when it comes to evaluating which ideas go forward it is important that whoever can assign resources is part of the process so that you can move quickly to actions. If the manager is present they must make it clear by their words and actions that any idea is welcome no matter how unconventional or challenging to current policy.
Many brainstorm meetings start without any agreed criteria for how the best proposals will be chosen. A selection method is needed but it is easy to set criteria that are too restrictive – e.g. we want ideas that can be implemented this quarter with no additional resource. A good test is whether you are a FAN of the idea – i.e. is it Feasible, Attractive and Novel?
There are various techniques that can be used to juice up your meeting in order to generate more ideas and more creative ideas. One is to reverse the problem. Instead of brainstorming how to improve customer service you come up with ideas to make it worse. Then you take those ideas and reverse them. You can also use external stimuli such as a random word or picture. Another powerful method is Similes, where you first find a situation in another walk of life that is like your problem. You brainstorm the other problem and then see if any of those ideas work in your situation. These and other techniques are described in detail in the ebook, How to Generate Ideas.
Some of the best ways to ruin a brainstorm are:
If you keep your brainstorm meeting short, fun and focused then you can quickly generate a large number of ideas. These can be slimmed down to a small number of great ideas using criteria such as FAN. Then you should assign actions for follow up on the best ideas to take them to the next stage. People will enjoy the meeting and see that it leads to quick results and a positive way to move forward.
Paul Sloane helps organizations improve innovation. He gives talks and facilitates meetings. He is the author of the Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills published by Sterling Publishing. Website: www.destination-innovation.com