We have all been there—called into a meeting to brainstorm new ideas for the business plan, a new product, new organizational structure, or a variety of different topics. You may even have a facilitator brought in to help you through the brainstorming process.
Then what started out as an exciting adventure turns into a biased conclave with a pre-determined agenda where all wildly innovative ideas get shot down. The participants become alienated and some feel embarrassed and humiliated. Your brainstorming process becomes a brain-drain process.
Brainstorming doesn’t have to be a disaster; there are simple ways to make this process illuminating and useful.
Demolition Derby or Invigorating Process
For the last few weeks I have encouraged you to brainstorm your mid-year business plan, how to build exceptional leaders, identify strategic advantage, and determine the business drivers that can help you grow.
I received a lot of comments stating that brainstorming has not been a productive process for you in the past. Unfortunately, you are not alone.
The faculty at the Kellogg School of Management conducted a survey of 126 client and agency marketing executives on the topic of brainstorming and the results were devastating:
- 10% strongly agree participants in brainstorming meetings feel their ideas have equal worth.
- 12% strongly agree brainstorming meetings elicit the candid, unbiased view of all participants.
- 12% strongly agree participants in brainstorm meetings feel comfortable bringing up different points of view.
- 13% strongly agree participants in brainstorm meetings feel their voice is heard.
Overall the Kellogg study found that instead of motivating and inspiring, it’s making people feel bad and sucking out the creativity or good ideas that may have been in the room. Moreover, leaders are not establishing clear objectives or proper strategic grounding.
In fact, the study found that the way we conduct brainstorming is actually undermining the fabric of our business—ideas.
Rethink the Brainstorm Process
We need to change the way we think about and implement brainstorming processes. You can take the traditional approach and invest in people and training, selecting the best individuals in your organization and obtain training for them to facilitate productive brainstorming meetings.
You can also use some of the new, innovative techniques such as mind-mapping apps which are designed specifically for ideation sessions. Most are online and many are free.
But before you even take those steps you need to take some time and lay the foundation for why you need a brainstorming session:
- An innovation session to lay out widely fresh and innovative strategies
- Create new products
- Update current products and services
- Break into new markets
- Restructure the company
You also need to outline what you expect as a result:
- New ideas to consider
- Specific solutions to articulated problems
- Identifying issues that are hindering growth
Without understanding the “why” you are meeting and what your expectations are, you will never have productive brainstorming meetings.
Select the Right Brainstorm Strategy
In an article written by Bob Kline, chief strategy officer at a Chicago marketing agency, he states that the most important factor for brainstorming success is the climate you create to capture ideas. What this means is:
- How we treat each other and receive new ideas
- Creating an environment of positive energy and positive thinking
- Allow participants to build on the ideas of others rather than punching holes in their ideas
When thinking about brainstorming processes, look at the goal(s) of the program and the types of people involved, as well as the problems under consideration. Do you need a free-wheeling session, or a process of deep deliberation?
These types of processes bring a cross-section of participants to freely innovate. The goal is to extract wild and new thinking. This should be a fun session where no idea is too crazy and the goal is quantity and not quality—you can refine ideas after this session.
The participants should feel comfortable enough to throw out any idea and not be judged or told it is dumb or stupid. Every idea gets white-boarded and should be given equal weight up-front. Everyone can add to and build on other’s ideas.
The refinement process or selection of ideas comes after the free-wheeling session, after people reflect on what was created.
Participants are provided background information on the issues and solutions that have been tried. Ideas are generated in advance of the session and then addressed and evaluated in person. This usually increases the variety and diversity of ideas that are brought to the table.
No matter which process you decide to use for your brainstorming session, you should incorporate Bob Kline’s The Five Commandments for Better Brainstorming:
- Thou shall encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
It’s always easier to tame a wild idea than it is to think of an immediately valid one in the first place.
- Thou shall generate quantity – not quality – early on
Temper the inclination to discuss the merits of each idea by simply keeping ideas short – no in-depth explanations or justifications. Save that for later.
- Thou shall postpone and withhold your judgments
Reserve all judgments in the early brainstorm process. Even seemingly foolish ideas can spark some better, more salient ones. Record all ideas.
- Every person and every idea has equal worth
The best facilitators encourage participation from everyone. When you ignore just one person’s idea, you are tacitly sending the message that their ideas/their opinions aren’t worth hearing.
Keep in mind that some people aren’t comfortable verbalizing ideas, so maybe they could write their idea and pass it forward.
- Thou shall build on the ideas put forth by others
Ideas are the bones of the skeleton that make up the fully-realized concept. Can ideas be combined to explore new possibilities? It’s just as valuable to adapt and improve other people’s ideas as it is to generate the initial idea.
“There is nothing more defeating than making a brainstorming session the place where your organization’s talent and great ideas go to die,” states Klein.
Perhaps we should all hang up these commandments in our brainstorming rooms to encourage the creativity we all know is sitting in each of us.
Diane Weklar, the Authority on Accelerating Business Growth, is the CEO of the Weklar Business Institute. She is the author of the award winning book, Mastering the Money Maze: 10 Secrets to Winning Business Financing,which is also an Amazon #1 Best Seller. This book provides practical insight to build a successful business and the practical steps to raise capital to help your firm grow. She can be reached at Diane@Weklar.com.