The brainstorm (aka thought shower or ideation session) is the most popular group creativity exercise in business. It is quick, easy and it works. But many organizations have become frustrated with brainstorms and have stopped using them. They say brainstorms are old-fashioned and no longer effective. But the real reason for the frustrations is that the brainstorms are not facilitated properly. A well-run brainstorm is fun and energetic. It will generate plenty of good ideas. But a poor brainstorm can be frustrating and demotivational. Let’s look at some simple ways to ruin your next brainstorm meeting.
1. Having no clear objectives
A brainstorm with a vague or unclear purpose will wander and lose its way. So set a clear objective. The purpose of the brainstorm is to generate many creative ideas to answer a specific goal. It is best to express the goal as a question. A wooly objective is not helpful. ‘How can we do better?’ is not as good as ‘How can we double sales in the next 12 months?’ Once the question has been agreed it is written up clearly for all to see. It is worth setting objectives for the number of ideas to be generated and the time to be spent. ‘We are looking to generate 60 ideas in the next 20 minutes. Then we will whittle them down to 4 or 5 really good ones.’
2. Too homogenous a group
If everyone is from the same department then creativity can be inhibited and you may get ‘group think’. Choose the group carefully. The best size is somewhere between six and twelve. Too few people and there are not enough diverse inputs. Too many people and it is hard to control and retain everyone’s commitment. Sprinkle the group with a few outsiders from other areas or even from outside the business – people who can bring some different perspectives and wacky ideas. A good mix of people works best – varied ages, men and women, experienced and fresh in, etc.
3. Letting the boss act as facilitator
Beware of having an autocratic boss with his or her team. They can inhibit or shape the discussion. If the boss is present then it is better to have a good independent facilitator – someone who can encourage input from everyone and stop one person from dominating. The worst formula for a brainstorm is generally the department manager leading the meeting and acting as scribe and censor at the same time.
4. Allowing early criticism
The most important rule of brainstorming is – suspend judgment. In order to encourage a wealth of wacky ideas it is essential that no one is critical, negative or judgmental about an idea. Any idea that is uttered – no matter how stupid – must be written down. The rule about suspending judgement during the idea generation phase is so important that it is worth enforcing rigorously. A good technique is to issue water pistols; anyone who is critical gets squirted.
5. Settling for a few ideas.
Don’t get a handful of ideas and then start analyzing. Quantity is great. The more ideas the better. Quantity improves quality. Think of it as a Darwinian process. The more separate ideas that are generated the greater the chance that some will be fit enough to survive. You need stacks of energy and buzz driving lots of wacky ideas. Crazy thoughts that are completely unworkable are often the springboards for other ideas that can be adapted into great new solutions. So keep the crazy ideas coming – you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find one prince!
6. No closure or follow through.
Don’t stop the meeting after generating lots of ideas with a vague promise to follow up. If people see no real outcomes they will become frustrated with the process and lose faith. You should quickly analyze the ideas at the meeting. One of the best ways is to divide the proposals into three categories – promising, interesting or reject. If any of the promising ideas are real no-brainers – so good that they should be implemented straight away then give them to someone as an action item immediately.
You should evaluate the ideas using clear criteria – e.g. we want ideas that are practical, creative and appealing. Once you have reduced the long list to a short list you can let people vote. Give everyone three points. They can allocate points to their favorite ideas in any way that they want. Then you total the points and select the best for further action.
Close the meeting by thanking everyone for their input. Mention again one of two of the best, most inventive or funniest ideas. Then see which ideas you can implement – even if they are small things. People enjoy short, high-energy brainstorms that lead to actions. These meetings can motivate people, improve efficiency and drive innovation.
Paul Sloane facilitates meetings and speaks at conferences. He is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills.