Brainstorming for quality ideas: 10 tips

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I’ve often heard “brainstorming” touted as a way to make an organizational culture more innovation-friendly. After all, brainstorming is practiced in organizations such as IDEO and Apple, highly regarded for their innovative cultures. No argument there: brainstorms, if well-constructed, can be a great source of new ideas.

But the problem for many companies isn’t a lack of ideas. More often, it’s a lack of high-quality ideas, and poor practices for supporting the transformation from idea to innovation — i.e., the implementation. In these cases, open-ended idea generation isn’t likely to lead to organizational wins.  These organizations need to focus on improving the quality of ideas and the mechanisms for selecting and supporting them going forward.

Brainstorms are an interesting technique to look at, because they represent a microcosm of organizational behaviors… the behaviors that support or undermine innovation. Let’s look at some concrete ways to get both quality and execution out of this standard idea-generation technique.

  1. Don’t call it a “brainstorm”. Calling it something special makes people self-conscious and even triggers skepticism.  Just tell the team you want to spend some time getting their ideas about Topic X.
  2. Know what you plan to do with the outcomes. Before calling a team together, be sure you’ll be able to  dedicate resources (time, funding, people) to support small experiments with several of the ideas.  If not, you’ll just breed frustration and annoyance — and waste everyone’s time, including yours.
  3. Go somewhere, anywhere, that isn’t your usual meeting spot. Just be sure you have a place to capture ideas where everyone can see them, and that it doesn’t feel too contrived. (I tried doing a creative session on a playground once.  Let’s just say that one didn’t work so well.)  If you don’t have the luxury of floor-to-ceiling whiteboards (PARC is filled with these), big pieces of foamcore are a great alternative.
  4. Adopt a “Yes, and” protocol during the session, as opposed to “yeah, but” statements. Actually, everyone should try this outside the idea generation session, too.
  5. Provide advance reading and questions. Many people don’t like to be put on the spot, and are reluctant to speak out if they think someone else in the group knows more about the topic than they do. Pre-reading allows everyone to get up to speed and, more importantly, establishes some common points of reference.
  6. Brainstorm constraints first. This one is counter to most advice on brainstorming, but it works in a lot of situations. All of us carry around unspoken assumptions about what’s allowed and what’s not. By getting those assumptions on the table early, you can explicitly acknowledge ones that are real and disabuse the ones you need people to put aside.
  7. Develop ideas iteratively. Start with one topic, then filter the outcome. Expand around that and build on a handful of the most promising ones. To do this, you need to define criteria for filtering. Some teams are able to generate this criteria within the idea generation session.  If this is completely new territory, though,  I suggest having some loose criteria going in. Let your team focus on generating the real ideas.
  8. Avoid “sticky idea” syndrome. This is where the person who comes up with an idea feels that they will automatically get stuck implementing it.  For collaborative idea development to work, people have to feel free to express ideas without thinking they’re automatically signing up for additional work.
  9. Design small experiments and check back. It’s unlikely you’ll have 5 brilliant ideas come out of a session, but you might get 5 good discussions started among small teams. Quickly, though, you’ll want to come back and review which ones should be cultivated further and which ones didn’t seem to pan out (and why — these can help with listing constraints and filters for future brainstorming sessions). Perhaps some should be combined, some abandoned, and some shelved for later; hopefully there’s at least one that’s worth taking a little further.
  10. Embrace failure. Everyone says some variation of this but I must repeat it:  Failure. is. part. of. the. process. You should stretch far enough that you have a chance to model a willingness to accept failure. Be sure, too, that everyone who participates along the way has a chance to see the results as they unfold. It’s the only way to create shared learning — just monitor yourself to be sure you’re teaching (and learning) what you want along the way.

Your thoughts?

 

6 thoughts on “Brainstorming for quality ideas: 10 tips

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  2. John Coldwell

    Absolutely agree with Jennifer.

    I regularly run full-day workshops with clients’ senior teams to review their customer surveys.

    Normally I’ll have between 12-16 people present. I’ll set a clear raison d’etre for doing the survey (to increase profitable sales), take them through the report, then split them into small teams. I find that teams of 3 are more dynamic than teams of 4.

    Then they are briefed to go through the customer feedback in depth and to come up with a minimum of 20 ideas, based on the feedback, which will help the client achieve that raison d’etre. Interestingly I used to ask for just 10 ideas. Then one day I had an awkward client and I asked them for 20 instead. What happened was they found it easier to find 20 that 10! Ten must have been 10 silver bullets, whereas twenty were 20 little ideas.

    I also don’t allow bullet points when they are presenting back. They have to flesh out the ideas on the premise that, this is the action you are looking for – assume that you are going on vacation tomorrow for 2 weeks and you want this task to be well underway by the time you return.

    Then at the end of the day, after all the ideas have been presented, I get them to work in pairs to score all the ideas based on cost, benefit, speed, etc. so that they clearly identify the quick wins. [The scorecard is on http://www.infoquestcrm.co.uk/downloads.htm - item 14].

  3. Jennifer Ernst

    John, thanks for adding on.

    Several of the techniques fit very well with the iterative approach of filtering and then expanding.

    Another gem I heard recently was to force participants to rapidly build on each other’s ideas (this was in the context of a group that tended to shoot down each other’s ideas pretty quickly). The organizer had participants each sketch out an idea in words and pictures and then explain it to the group. Next everyone was assigned to someone else’s idea and given 5 minutes to build on it, with the question “how can I make this more likely to succeed?” That person then presented, and this continued for several rounds. I haven’t tried this particular approach, but it seemed to have been very effective with the particular team.

  4. rotkapchen

    Adopt design thinking principles. The meetings would be to exercise possibilities in context rather than random, disonnected, disembodied ideas.

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