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Brainstorming: We have lots of ideas, now what?

In the world of business and technology, success stems from good ideas. Successful organizations rely on a variety of idea generation techniques to:

  • Solve problems
  • Identify options, needs and features
  • Improve processes
  • Resolve issues
  • Create or modify products

Teams assume good idea generation techniques inspire collaboration, creativity and innovation, but struggle to transform those assumptions to reality. They don’t find the promised value in their brainstorming sessions. Instead, meetings end with stakeholders buried in piles of sticky notes wondering where the value is hiding.

Stakeholders forget that idea generation is only the first step—maybe the easiest step. Piles of sticky notes and rolled up flip chart sheets don’t offer value on their own. We need to find a way to process the output of your brainstorming session until a clear path to value appears.

Process the output: divergent and convergent thinking

Good idea generation techniques require divergent thinking where all participants submit new ideas and expand existing ideas without criticism, constraints or editing. Words like impossible, impractical, stupid, too expensive do not exist in this divergent process.

This process makes some team members uncomfortable. BAs need to let visions of business rules, risks, process diagrams, and system constraints fade away. Concerns about scope and cost do not apply in this open brainstorming phase.

(Some companies use squirt guns to quiet people who critique divergent ideas.)

After the divergent phase, the real work begins. How do you process the ideas? How do you narrow them down to something tangible and valuable? Here are a few possibilities for the first convergent thinking phase:

  • Condense-remove duplicates, group similar ideas
  • Categorize-Often categories or themes emerge that can be an umbrella for multiple ideas
  • Matrix-Ideas may fit into a matrix like SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) or high/low cost vs. high/low time, high/low benefit vs. high/low complexity
  • Range/Scale-List ideas in order by feasibility, practicality, cost, time, impact or value.

A clear path: prioritization

After the initial convergent thinking phase, an idea prioritization process provides a clear path to value. There are many ways to prioritize a list of ideas and the proper technique will vary depending on the nature of your ideas, but here are three suggestions:

  • Voting-Allow participants to vote on their favorite ideas virtually with a survey tool or in-person with tallies or dot stickers. Consider the value of anonymous voting. Consider allowing more than one vote. Consider allowing no votes and yes votes.
  • Buy a Feature – a prioritization technique that allows stakeholders to vote and prioritize with “play money”. Encourage customers to pool their money to buy important/expensive features. Need an online/virtual version? Buy a Feature 
  • Forced Ranking – Place two ideas/features in front of the group, ask the group to decide if the second idea goes above or below the first. (Ideas at the top of the list have the highest priority.) Then take the third idea, ask the group if it goes above, below or between the others. Continue through all ideas until they are ranked in order.

Finding value: taking action

The prioritized list of ideas should offer a clear path for action.

  • If the list includes new features for a product, the team might start defining requirements for the top features.
  • If the list includes solutions for a problem, the team might attempt the solutions in order of priority until they found success.
  • If the list includes ideas for process improvements, the team might begin process change procedures for the top requirements.

When working through the priorities remember to check-in with stakeholders to reassess. New priorities might be added and existing priorities might shift. Also, remember to celebrate success!

A note about stakeholder buy-in

In many cases, project managers and business analysts find it difficult to get stakeholders to participate in structured idea generation processes. We’ve all been on projects where solutions come before requirements, where collaboration is not valued, or issues are ignored.

BAs promote project activities that boost sponsor value. Find ways to educate stakeholders about the benefits of divergent thinking. If all else fails, find informal ways to gather ideas. Try to inspire divergent thinking by asking questions like:

  • How might we…?
  • What would that look like?
  • How could you modify that idea?
  • What if we can’t do that?

Over time, as creativity and innovation grow, your stakeholders will begin to see the value of brainstorming. Be patient as you build trust.

How do you gather and process ideas? 

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