How To Make Brainstorming Much More Effective

brainstormingRecently I tried out a new approach to brainstorming. A couple of weeks ago I read an article discussing what is wrong with brainstorming, on Eric Barker’s blog; Barking Up The Wrong Tree. I adopted some of the learnings, experimented with them and found that it really worked! While no single method of approach is perfect, the results were significantly better than what I had seen before.

The way I implemented brainstorming techniques in the past was similar to the way Alex F. Osborn, known as the “father of brainstorming” invented it in 1958. Put people in a group together and collectively write as many individual ideas down as possible, whether they are crazy, funny, ridiculous, innovative or clever. Don’t criticize anything and allow people to make links and associations as they go along. When you have all the ideas on one list, bring them down to the best few and then expand on them. Sounds familiar?

More often than not, the problem with this approach is that the ideas that you get are either ‘spiked up’ versions of ideas that have gone around for ages or ideas so wild that they will never see the light of day.

So I decided to experiment and organized a brainstorming activity for a client in which they wanted to come up with new initiatives to grow their business, taking into account the new research findings that:

  • Smaller teams are more effective than larger teams (also see this article in HBR explaining that smaller, more homogenous, research groups are more effective per researcher)
  • Less is More
  • Criticizing and debating ideas will improve the quality of the idea

The brainstorming session was not only aimed at coming up with new ideas but also to translate those ideas into initial action plans. To do this we used the following 5 steps:

1. Individual Ideas
The night before the brainstorming session, every participant was briefed on the objective of the next day (to come up with innovative ideas to grow business). Each individual was requested to come up with one, two or maximum three ideas that he / she thought would grow their business. The next day each participant was given a flip chart in which they had to put down their ideas by answering three questions (1) What is the problem you are trying to solve? (2) What is your proposed solution? and (3) How will it work?

2. Share Judge and Select
Then, seated in groups of 5, each individual was asked to present his/her ideas to the other members of their group. During the presentation other members were encouraged to ask questions for clarification, make suggestions on how to improve the idea or use the idea in a different context. Next, the group was asked to rate all of the presented ideas on the criteria of uniqueness and potential value. All ideas were plotted on a matrix and the groups were asked to select their top three concepts.

3. Present and Pick
Each group then presented their top 3 ideas in a standardized format to the larger group (50 people in this case). The groups were then asked to give three votes to three ideas that according to them was the most unique and had the most value for the company. A ranking of ideas emerged and the top 10 of these ideas were taken into the next round.

4. Praise and Criticize
Having selected the 10 innovative ideas that were both unique and had significant value to the organization, it was then time to start moving into action. But, before I asked individual groups to start writing action plans, i wanted to galvanize the collective wisdom of all 50 people in the room to improve the idea. The concept that we used was “Praise and Criticize.” Each group was given a random idea and had 5 minutes to list as many reasons why this was a great idea along with why this idea was not going to work. After 5 minutes the list of praises and critiques was moved to the next group and they are asked to do the same. If you do this 4/5 times you get a pretty exhaustive list of good and bad qualities for every idea.

5. Action!
The list of praise and criticism was then given to the group that originally came up with the idea, so that they could take their colleagues comments into account when they started working on their action plan. You can imagine that the action plan that was created was significantly richer in content as already 50 people had been able to review it and make suggestions.

The end result for the team I worked with was 8 fantastic ideas that already had a meaty action plan linked to them. A project lead was appointed and a first review date was set. And the amazing thing is it only took 4 hours to go through this session. 4 hours with 50 people leading to 8 brilliant business innovation ideas. Not a bad investment in my book!

So, whenever you are planning to do your next brainstorming session, let people come up with their own ideas first. Let them share their ideas, fight over what the best ideas are and then use the collective wisdom of the group to praise and criticize those ideas to strengthen their overall action plan.

– Paul Keijzer

You may also like:
Does Your Team Have A Clear Line of Sight?
If You Want People To Collaborate – Put Them Next To Each Other

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