What is really at the heart of business success? Ideas. Without new ideas, companies can achieve no more than the status quo. Ideas lead to better products, more effective marketing and sales, efficient operations and communications; you name it. Without ideas, organizations have nothing.
The most widely used tool for generating and developing new ideas in organizations is group brainstorming. Literally hundreds of thousands of brainstorm sessions take place in offices and conference rooms across the globe, every single day.
In our innovation work, we have the opportunity to question business people about the effectiveness of their brainstorming efforts. And it is rare that we don’t hear a negative response. “Boring.” “Intimidating.” “A big waste of time.” “The same old ideas over and over again.” “Nothing ever happens with the concepts we do come up with.” These are all comments we hear repeatedly, from individuals at every level of an organization, and from every business category.
In fact, brainstorming as traditionally practiced is a sloppy, haphazard process. Remarkably, this single activity, which is so vitally important to business success, is allowed to take place in a manner that is completely lacking in structure, facilitated by individuals with little or no training and who have no idea what tools or techniques might make their efforts more productive. One can only imagine the cost of ineffective brainstorming to business, in wasted manpower, lost opportunity and damaged employee morale.
The topic of brainstorming is a big and important one. But here are seven things you can start doing today to make your sessions dramatically more effective.
1. Make a Plan, Stan
It is sometimes said that professionals plan, amateurs wing it. Before your brainstorm ever begins, take the time to plan your session. What is the challenge you will present to the group? What is your objective for the session? Ten new ideas? One hundred? What idea generation techniques will you use to inspire your group’s imagination and make new connections? When you create a vision and a plan for the session, you increase the odds you will actually realize it.
2. Invite Diversity
Tired of getting the same old ideas in every brainstorm session? Maybe you should consider not inviting the same usual suspects. By including individuals with refreshingly different backgrounds, perspectives, ages, genders, ethnicities, etc., you will be creating a group mind with a wealth of divers experience to draw on. Consider who in your organization might make an unexpected contribution to your idea pool, and make sure they’re there.
3. Kick Out The Boss
I once knew the president of a company who would insist on attending every brainstorm session, and then start it off by saying, “You know how they say there are no bad ideas? That’s wrong. There are very bad ideas that should never be expressed. So, anybody got anything?” Nothing will more effectively shut down a brainstorm session than the fear of saying something stupid in front of the boss. It’s sometimes easier said than done, but unless your company leadership is extremely supportive and accepting, they shouldn’t be in a brainstorming session. Idea generation requires a safe environment, where people aren’t afraid to share their thoughts. Ensure the boss you’ll review everything with her after the session is over.
4. Play By The Rules
Of course it’s not just the boss who can derail and brainstorm. Anyone with a big ego, loud voice or attention-seeking personality can do the same. Negativity and judgment bring instant death to spontaneous idea sharing faster than negativity and judgment. Make a list of guidelines or rules for your session as soon as you begin. Ask for everyone’s agreement. No negative comments. One person talks at a time. Crazy, even audacious ideas are encouraged. If anyone breaks the rules, ask others in the group to good-naturedly remind him-perhaps by pelting him with crumpled paper balls!
5. Hold The Phone
“Phone” here, of course, means any device that will distract one’s attention from the task at hand. The remarkable convenience and productivity provided by PDAs is nothing short of miraculous. They also make brainstorming sessions come to a grinding halt. One of your most important rules is, “All phones, smartphones, iPhones, Blackberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, whatever OFF during the session-and put out of sight, out of temptation’s reach!” Reassure attendees that you will provide breaks during which they can check messages or email.
6. Ask Lots of Questions
Not getting what you want from your brainstorming group? Maybe you’re not asking the right questions. You can immediately change the consciousness and output of any group by simply posing a provocative question? “What if we combined the last two ideas?” “That was a wild idea. How can we rein it in to make it more on strategy?” “What are three more ideas like that one?” Learn and apply the art of powerful questioning and you will get an exponentially greater return on your ideation investment.
7. Maintain Momentum
Most brainstorming sessions tend to start out slow and low energy. People are feeling their way into the process. After awhile, the energy sometimes picks up for a few minutes. Ideas come from everywhere. Then it stops. They’ve run out of steam. They start talking about last night’s episode of Mad Men. You’re lost. A great facilitator is like an accomplished surfer-they can “sense” the crest of the wave, where it is now and where it’s going, and ride it all the way to the end. Be tuned into the energy of the room, when it’s high, let it rip. At the first sign of dropping energy, ask a provocative question that takes the group in a new, interesting direction and gets everything going again. Brainstorming facilitation is work-fun work, but work nonetheless. Stay focused, ride the wave and you’ll walk out with a stack full of great ideas.
Great brainstorming and creative idea-generation is multi-faceted process that requires structure, trained facilitation and a full toolkit of proven techniques. There’s a lot to learn. But you can start your ongoing education with these seven key improvements, and start seeing better results right away.
How’s that for a great idea?
Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeyer, have a combined 40+ years experience working in the strategic marketing communications field. SmartStorming is the result of their personal experience and expertise, as well as extensive research and practical application in the areas of innovation, peak creative performance, group dynamics and interpersonal communication.SmartStorming helps companies that are struggling to become more innovative and competitive. Through training programs, consulting, coaching and expert facilitation, SmartStorming helps dramatically increase the output of fresh, new ideas by teaching organizations how to take their group brainstorming and creative idea generation to an entirely new level of effectiveness. To learn more about SmartStorming, visit their blog at http://SmartStorming-blog.com or their company site at http://www.SmartStorming.com.
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