Seven Smart Steps to Successful Brainstorming

By Jerry Weissman

At some point in your business career, it is very likely that you and other key members of your affinity group will gather for an offsite session or meeting convened for the express purpose of generating new ideas. The sought-after ideas could be to solve problems, devise strategy, build consensus, focus direction, or develop next generation products.

Most likely, your group will consider many different ideas by engaging in the time-tested practice of brainstorming. While the brainstorming may ultimately produce an incandescent new idea, all too often, the session will deteriorate into anarchy or its close cousins: contention, grandstanding, digression, or all of the above, and all at once. But brainstorming, by its very nature, is ideally suited to the exploration of new ideas, and it can work … if you follow these seven smart steps.

1.      Know the territory. The human brain is divided into left and right hemispheres that control different forms of reasoning. The left side controls logical functions: arithmetic, structure, sequence, ranking, and order; all of which proceed in a linear progression. The right side controls creative functions: concepts, music, images, and emotion; all of which are nonlinear in nature, and occur randomly. Brainstorming is a creative process. Use the right tool for the right job.

Most business people, being results-driven, try to jump immediately to a logical conclusion while their right brains are still caroming around in nonlinear mode. The left brain approach might let a new idea slip through the cracks. Brainstorming, the right brain approach… and the right approach… is an open process that recognizes, allows, and encourages the free flow of ideas.

2.      Appoint a facilitator. Since anarchy is the major pitfall of brainstorming sessions, have all the participants agree on one individual, either from your affinity group itself or an objective outsider, who will run the session.

3.      Set the context. Before beginning the brainstorming, have all the participants agree on the endgame of the session. Follow the second of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people, “Begin with the end in mind.” Have the group agree on the goal of the session. An important corollary to the setting the context is to set the time. At the beginning of the session, have the group agree to the endpoint.

4.      Empower the facilitator. Establish one critical ground rule above all others: all discussion must be exchanged through the facilitator. If there is cross-talk or side-talk, valuable ideas might be lost. With the facilitator as the pivot, all ideas can be shared by all participants. In addition, have the facilitator control the equally important functions of managing the time and the traffic as the participants speak up to contribute and share.

5.      Capture the output. Conduct the brainstorming session in a conference room with lots of whiteboard space on which the facilitator can scribe ideas as they arise. Many creative executives outfit entire walls of their conference rooms as whiteboards. The scribing serves to crystallize the emerging ideas for all the participants to see, as well as the more prosaic function of providing a record. By directing all the traffic to the whiteboard, the scribing also subtly gives control to the facilitator.

The whiteboard dry markers also allow color coding to highlight key ideas. Now there are electronic whiteboards on the market that not only provide all of the above benefits, but also create a record of the brainstorming with the click of a mouse.

6.      Encourage teamwork. The physical act of assembling a group can, with the right ground rules, produce cooperation. Cooperation produces consensus, a simple concept that is the foundation of all diplomacy… and brainstorming.

7.      “There is no such thing as a bad idea” is the operating principle on which all brainstorming sessions are based. But this very principle can, and often does, backfire into the dreaded anarchy. But that only happens when the first 6 steps are not implemented. Put all these controls into place and you just might find that what seems like a bad idea at first, turns out to be the very idea you were seeking.

Harness the synergy of your group. Capture the free flow of their thoughts. Find the breakthrough idea that might otherwise be lost in the separate cubicles and minds of your team.

Read other articles and learn more about Jerry Weissman.

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