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How Do You Brainstorm Great Ideas?

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Recent McKinsey research surveyed a large set of global executives and suggests that many companies, these days, are in a nearly permanent state of organizational flux. A rise in efforts in Organizational Design is attributed to the accelerating pace of structural change generated by market [read more]

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brainstormingWere you also part of a so-called “brainstorming sessions,” where both the process and the results were very disappointing? A lot of them are done in the wrong way.

The spiritual father of the brainstorming technique is the American Alex Osborn. He describes when a group works together, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” that is; “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” Two essential rules are:

  1. Defer your judgment
  2. Go for quantity

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that people are scared of saying something wrong. In a period where employees still were scared to speak up, brainstorming was experienced as revolutionary.

Being aware of the pitfalls of a brainstorm after facilitating more than 100 brainstorms, I fine-tuned the way of brainstorming. In my practice, I have found 25 pieces trying to create perfect brainstorming:

Highly Relevant

  1. Define a relevant subject, which is a challenge for the organization and the people you invite.
  2. Create with the sponsor a concrete and s.m.a.r.t. brainstorming or innovation assignment.
  3. Create momentum for brainstorming. Something important must happen now!

Diverse Group of Participants

  1. Invite people for whom the assignment is personally relevant.
  2. Invite people for both content as well as decision-making capabilities.
  3. Include outsiders and outside-the-box thinkers.
  4. Include an even mix of men and women, young & old, et cetera.
  5. Invite the internal senior problem-owner (CEO or Vice President) to participate.

Special Setting

  1. Look for a special and harmonious venue.
  2. Create an (emotionally) safe environment where you can be yourself.
  3. Don’t allow iPhones and iPads to ring or flash.
  4. Never- and I really mean never do any brainstorming at the office.

Effectively Structured Process

  1. Plan a period of incubation time between the assignment and the brainstorm so people come to the brainstorm with a lot of ideas, which “popped up” at non-working-hours.
  2. Allow at least two days for effective brainstorming to reach concrete new concepts.
  3. Spend twice as much time on the convergence process as on the divergence process.
  4. Plan and prepare an effective combination of idea-generating techniques.
  5. Make sure it is enjoyable. Fun promotes good results.
  6. Time box. Make sure everybody is aware of the time limits- and sticks to them.
  7. Hire a storyboard artist or cartoonist to visualize the results
  8. Keep up the pace; otherwise it becomes long-winded and boring.

Facilitated by a Professional

  1. Appoint an (internal) expert facilitator, who stays in the background and exercises light control.
  2. The facilitator should reflect the opposite energy of the group. If the group is too active: exert calmness.
  3. The facilitator mustn’t lose sight of sub groups; constantly monitoring their progress.

Concrete Output

  1. Make the output very concrete and clear to anybody.
  2. Creating concepts together with your colleagues generates maximum internal support.

You can download these 25 “Rules for Perfect Brainstorming” (PDF document).

The experience of sharing ideas in a structured process and drafting concrete concepts from the best ideas has a great impact on group dynamics. At the end the whole group feels ownership of all the concepts. That is essential. New ideas need a lot of “parents” to survive the development process in a corporate culture.

There are no old roads to new directions. The following five provocative questions might help you to break your pattern in the divergence phase of your brainstorm to get great ideas.

  1. What would we do if we were a new start-up company?
  2. What would we do if we had unlimited access to money and resources? Or no resources at all?
  3. What would Google do if we were taken over by them?
  4. What would we do if our “way of working” would be forbidden by law?
  5. What would my favorite comic/movie hero from my childhood do?

Be sure to defer your judgment and to elaborate on the ideas instead of killing them right away.

If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it. – Albert Einstein

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About Gijs van Wulfen

Gijs van Wulfen (1960; Dutch) is a keynote speaker on innovation and the founder of the FORTH innovation method, a proven structured way to ideate new products, services and business models. He is a LinkedIn Influencer with more than 260,000 followers worldwide and he was chosen in the top 10 of the International Top 40 Innovation Bloggers 3 years in a row. He is a best selling author on innovation with his latest book titled "The Innovation Expedition: A Visual Toolkit to Start Innovation."

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