Done correctly, Group Brainstorming can generate solutions to problems, come up with creative ideas and produce innovative ways to move forward. Do them badly and they may produce nothing more than some disheartened co-workers. Here are my seven steps to make your brainstorming session (BSS) a success.
On creativity:- “It’s a process and if you don’t understand that and if you sit around waiting for the lightening bolt you’re not going to be very productive.”
Peter Rummell, former chairman of Disney’s Imagineers
1. Define the Issue
The more defined and precise the purpose of the BSS the better the results will be. Consider that you have a product that has been on the market for 25 years and you want to mark the occasion in some way. You could ask your brainstorming group:-
What shall we do to celebrate 25 years of Product X?
What shall we do for our customers to celebrate 25 years of Product X?
What shall we do for our staff to celebrate 25 years of Product X?
These are subtly different from each other and are likely to produce different results. “What shall we do to celebrate 25 years of product X?” is a pretty broad topic and although it may throw up some good ideas, if what you really want to do is to thank your staff in some way then using the last question as the title for your BSS may well produce more focused and ultimately more practical ideas.
As a rule, the more precisely defined the issue, the more focused people’s thoughts will be and the greater the likelihood of producing quality results, so time spent defining the issue is time well spent.
2. Who should attend?
One of my lecturers was fond of telling his students a story about the United States Department of Defence running a BSS about how to track submarines in the Pacific Ocean and after a few hours they were stumped. Martha, the tea lady, came in with the midmorning refreshments and in desperation one of the senior ranks asked her the question “Martha, if you wanted to keep track of all the submarines in the Pacific Ocean what would you do?” The reply was instant “I’d take all the water out, then you could see them coming!” Apparently, this set the meeting on a new track of exploring detection systems that effectively did not “see” water, just submarines. Martha’s idea was not the answer but it did spark a new train of thought that led to a solution.
Usually in business you will have a core team who need to attend any particular BSS but a group of marketers who have worked together for five years are unlikely to come up with the same thoughts as a poet, an explorer and a high jumper. Adding to the mix of people may just provide that spark of creativity that you have been hoping for, so why not ask yourself if your BSS needs a “Martha” or two.
Their environment can have a powerful effect on how people think. Ask people where they have their best ideas and you will often hear, in the shower, driving home from work, out walking, the list is endless but perhaps the most famous was Archimedes who discovered his famous principle while in the bath and was so excited by his discovery that he leap from his tub and ran naked down the street shouting “Eureka!”
I once took a group of “stuck” executives to the Tate Modern Art Gallery for a hour before running a BSS in the local park. It just changes perspective, frees up the mind, stimulates the senses and can lead to an unexpected flow of ideas.
If you decide to have your BSS in your office that may well work but as long as your group are somewhere comfortable and undisturbed trying something new may well enhance their creativity.
4. Choose a leader
Any BSS session needs someone to lead it, which includes capturing all the ideas, usually on a flipchart. Often the manager decides to be the leader and scribe but the problem with this is that even an experienced individual may find it difficult to scribe and come up with suggestions at the same time, so if, as manager, you need to be part of the ideas generation you might consider inviting someone else in to lead the session who is not actually part of brain storming team. They can focus on running the session and writing down people’s ideas while the team have nothing to do but let their ideas flow.
Whoever the leader is they must be familiar with the structure for a successful brainstorm, be strong enough to control the group and be familiar with any technical terms or jargon that may be used (you do not want any breaks in the process because someone has to explain or spell for the scribe) and be able to write at a reasonable pace to keep up with the generation of ideas. Make sure they can write legibly, at speed on a flipchart; this may seem obvious but I have witnessed many an evaluation where the group has wasted so much valuable time trying to decipher flipchart squiggles!
5. The Creative Part
The leader must explain these rules fully and ensure everybody understands that breaking them leads to mediocrity.
- The purpose of the session is to create as many ideas as possible around the defined topic.
- There are no bad ideas. The crazier the better.
- No questions. Asking a question during “the creative part” does something to people’s minds, they will stop being creative and think about the question and you may never get them back into a creative mindset in the session.
- No criticism of any idea, none, not at all, NEVER!
- No discussion.
- The ONLY thing that happens in this part of a BSS is the group comes up with ideas and the scribe writes them down on a flipchart. Anything else risks destroying the session.
If you have adhered to the guidelines above you will now have a myriad of ideas but what to do with them? First of all, see if any could be grouped under a common heading, either circle common ideas with the same colour pen or if you have recorded the idea on post-it notes group them together. Sometimes there are a few ideas that do not really fit under one of your headings; that is fine, just because an idea is in a group of one does not mean it is not of value, indeed the opposite may well be true.
Consider the ideas generated to the reality criteria of the situation. Factors to consider maybe the time-frame, cost, risk, is it possible? Once the key ideas have been selected a decision matrix may help analyse the remaining options.
Evaluating is not ridiculing. Sometimes people are very attached to their ideas and care must be taken to give each suggestion merit. Just because an idea seems crazy at this point it still had value because it may have sparked an idea, which sparked another idea which turned out to be a key innovation.
7. Follow Up
It is so easy to move on with the ideas generated from a BSS and put them into action but people like to feel that they have made a contribution and that their contribution has been recognised. Once the outcomes of the BSS have become reality it is worth reminding those people involved that the success, at least in part, came out of the BSS they attended. This is especially important for people invited into the mix who have not been part of the project since. As it was a success, you may want to call on them for their help again and they are much more likely to give it if they know their contribution is appreciated.
Brainstorming is a common activity that is all to often run ineffectively leading to a poor selection of ideas. Using the steps above will help your session run smoothly and produce the high quality of ideas that can form the basis of successful future projects.