We all want to win the never ending race for great, effective, profitable new ideas. We want these ideas without a huge effort, without a huge risk and without a huge investment. Most brainstorming is done in a highly periodic, no idea is bad, let’s go for quantity over quality kind of way. Usually an important, expensive consultant gets involved. The often given guidance for these all-day or multi-day activities that involve too many people for too long, but insure a long, expensive consulting engagement:
- Conduct singular, major events
- Involve a large group of people
- Reserve judging ideas
- Go for as many ideas as possible
- Employ a professional facilitator
- Use a highly structured process or procedure
- Conclude by filtering and documenting ideas for further development
I don’t know about you, but I do not think I have ever met a great inventor, scientist or businessperson who said four times a year I’m going to brainstorm, maybe just once or twice and do all of the above. The Apollo 13 crisis certainly did not do things that way. Neither did the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison. So, then, what are the secrets? We think small group or teams and individual thinking are the keys. Let’s try that, building upon the great businessmen and inventors of the last few hundred years:
- Brainstorm constantly, as time allows, alone and in small groups
- Involve a small group of diverse people
- Iterate a lot, identify what’s valuable –and kill bad ideas quickly
- Go for relevant ideas that serve major trends
- Develop internal champions to serve as facilitators
- Use a contexted, structured approach
- Use tool sets that work for your group, for this this moment
- Regularly evaluate documented ideas for further development
Real brainstorming effectiveness means brainstorming whenever you can alone and in small groups. Even if you are forced into the big program, why not be developing ideas all of the time? Ideation realize, is not scheduled! I’ve often involved highly varied co-workers, but not just friends, in my own groups. Rather, I often involved contrarians who I knew would not easily be agreeable and or those who I knew had little knowledge about, say, the technology and so they would ask a lot of great, but simple, questions others would be coy about asking. These small groups can then develop more detailed, conceptual ideas and the associated pitch, storylines and min-business plans any start-up or corporate initiative should have.
These small group sessions often occurred around the water cooler, in an empty conference room, in someone’s office or at a restaurant over lunch. Many occurred and were initiated by sales and marketing after an extended trip or a unique customer visit. The point here – waiting for these highly structured, facilitated, often off site, periodic and infrequent brain storming sessions can by their nature be killing dozens of ideas before they ever got off the ground.
Yes, there are bad ideas. Lots and lots of bad ideas. How many of us have heard the utterly absurd and then had an equally uninformed facilitator tell us to just let it go, to get the ideas down. While filling time and pleasing the uniformed makes work and helps a consulting group fill the docket and justify a big bill, it does nothing for productivity. Time, people and money are scarce corporate resources to be carefully allocated and utilized. Silly, bad or unsubstantiated ideas serve to frustrate those who see it right away and are not allowed to challenge or ask obvious questions. Allowing a person or group to present those ideas and carry forward with them can be professionally damaging. Finally, they are just plain distracting and a waste of time. Sometimes the bad may actually be good, but without any rules or thought, the idea never seems good to begin with even if it is.
So what’s the solution? Companies must constantly develop context via a clear corporate mission and the surrounding influencing trends, communicate them constantly to provide employees that context and then often create multidisciplinary groups where soft knowledge and communication hones everyone’s understanding of the company and the context of their products and activities within the bounds of influencing trends. With this, bad ideas can be minimized.
To develop an idea, I think it’s important to have a few criteria for presenting one, even in brainstorming, in however simple a way:
- What challenge or opportunity does the idea serve?
- A one line bi-line or pitch for the idea – the billboard phrase.
- How can we make money?
- Why would we be better?
- How can we quantify its value relative to other solutions or the situation?
Such a simple approach forces the individual or small group to really look at ideas or concepts holistically and see where the fatal flaws may. The presentation also allows for developing deeper questions, modifying and improving the idea or by leaving an area blank, acknowledging to the group the hole and can someone please fill it in! This alternative approach allows actually more higher quality ideas to develop and then for rapid fire iterating and ranking to occur.
Now let’s talk about to facilitation. I have found that while occasionally needing a professional facilitator, it’s often far better to train and develop staff for future business and management opportunities by allowing them to first self organize groups and present ideas from their brainstorming and those ideas subsequent further development. For emerging managers, particularly multidisciplinary or operation management, the ability to brainstorm and lead solution selection, development and implementation is critical to their and the company’s success. Utilizing outsiders often or all the time adds no real value long term to the organization and only exacerbates the punctuated innovation issue. There are many courses and programs for teaching these tools, but the bottom line is that some people are innately better and may need little to no training at all beyond discipline and a profound respect for others. The message – go inside for long term benefits to your organization.
Now then, let’s talk about tools for brainstorming. The message here is that there should be no highly or overly structured process. Each group, whether one person, a small group or a large one will have it’s own likes and dislikes and so when one uses great internal or external facilitators, they are keen on understanding the people involved, their styles and backgrounds and the corporate culture and thus what tools will work for that particular group, time and situation. A general approach, or simplified process, should then be equipped with those tools the facilitator or individual sees as germane. The point here – adapt to the situation, the group for maximum brainstorming effectiveness and results.
To close, utilizing a constant, ever evolving approach to internally led brainstorming can be far more effective and efficient for any organization. Communicating the results and constantly monitoring the quality, quantity, life cycle and end results provide metrics for better corporate management. Versus the punctuated, periodic end of the big session summaries where the in between is lost, a constant activity leads to a living organizational learning experience with terrific results far more often, at far less risk and at a far lower cost.