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Author: Dr. Surya M. Ganduri

Effective Brainstorming Practices

Have you been getting frustrated with brainstorms and have stopped using them? Rest assured, you are not alone.

Brainstorming practice, once used to be the most popular group creativity exercise in business, has become old-fashioned and no longer considered effective in many organizations. But the real reason for their frustration is typically that the brainstorming meetings are not facilitated properly.

A well-run brainstorming meeting is fun and energetic. It is quick, easy and it works. It will generate plenty of good ideas. But a poor session can be frustrating and demotivating. Let’s look at some simple ways to ruin your next brainstorm meeting – so you understand what practices you should avoid.

1. Have an Independent Facilitator

Beware of having an autocratic boss with his or her team. Don’t let your boss be the moderator. He or she can inhibit or shape the discussion in undesirable ways, and can often inhibit the group’s creativity. If the boss is present then it is better to have a good independent facilitator – someone who can encourage input from everyone and stop one person from dominating. The worst formula for a brainstorming session is generally the department manager leading the team and acting as scribe and censor at the same time.

Most brainstorming sessions follow a power curve. They start out slowly, build to a crescendo, and then start to plateau. The best facilitators nurture the conversation in its early stages, step out of the way as the ideas start to flow, and then jump in again when energy starts to peter out.

2. Have Clear Objectives

A brainstorming session with a vague or unclear purpose will wander and lose its way. So be sure to set a clear objective for your meeting. The purpose of the brainstorming session is to generate many creative ideas to answer a specific goal. It is best to express the goal as a question. A general objective is not helpful. For example, “How can we do better?” is not as good as “How can we double sales in the next 12 months?” However, the question should not be too detailed, or it may close out lateral possibilities. To follow our previous example, “How can we double sales, through existing channels and with the current product set?” is probably too constrained. Once the question has been agreed it is written up clearly for all to see.

Caveat: If your goal is to just “collect the creative ideas that are out there,” group brainstorms are a waste of time. A Web-based system for collecting ideas or an old-fashioned employee suggestion box is good enough.

3. Set a Time Limit

It is worth setting objectives for the number of ideas to be generated and the time to be spent. “We are looking to generate 60 ideas in the next 20 minutes. Then we will whittle them down to 4 or 5 really good ones.” For best results, your brainstorming session should not be too long – around 30 (+/- 5) minutes is generally best.

4. Diversity of Group Members

ganduri Nov11Figure: Group Think

If everyone is from the same department, then creativity can be inhibited and you may get “group think.” Choose the members of your group carefully; the best size is somewhere between six and twelve people. Too few people and there are not enough diverse inputs. Too many people and it is hard to control and retain everyone’s commitment. Sprinkle the group with a few outsiders from other areas or even from outside the business – people who can bring some different perspectives and wacky ideas. A good mix of people – varied ages, men and women, works best.

5. No Criticism

The most important rule of brainstorming is to suspend judgment. In order to encourage a wealth of wacky ideas, it is essential that no one is critical, negative or judgmental about an idea. Any idea that is uttered – no matter how stupid – must be written down. The rule about suspending judgment during the idea generation phase is so important that it is worth enforcing rigorously. A good technique is to issue water pistols; anyone who is critical gets squirted.

6. Settling for a Lots of Ideas

Don’t get a handful of ideas and then start analyzing. Quantity is great. The more ideas the better. Brainstorming is one the few activities in life where quantity improves quality. Think of it as a Darwinian process. The more separate ideas that are generated the greater the chance that some will be fit enough to survive. You need stacks of energy and buzz driving lots of wacky ideas. Crazy thoughts that are completely unworkable are often the springboards for other ideas that can be adapted into great new solutions. So keep the crazy ideas coming – you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find one prince!

7. Follow Through

Don’t stop the meeting after generating lots of ideas with a vague promise to follow up. If people see no real outcomes they will become frustrated with the process and lose faith. You should quickly analyze the ideas at the meeting. One of the best ways is to divide the proposals into three categories – promising, interesting, or reject. If any of the promising ideas are real no-brainers – so good that they should be implemented immediately – give them to someone as an action item immediately.

Caveat: Don’t Reward. The worst thing you can do is set up the session as an “I win, you lose” game, in which ideas are explicitly rated, ranked, and rewarded. If you reward giving bonuses (or gifts) to people who generate “the best” ideas in brainstorms, the resulting fear and dysfunctional competition will drastically reduce the number of ideas generated by what can be a creative and cooperative group process.

You should categorize and collect the ideas. On a separate flipchart, write all the promising and interesting ideas which are marketing ideas, on another chart all the sales ideas, etc. This process of rearranging the ideas can help you see new combinations and possibilities. Some people use Post-It notes at this stage so that they can easily move ideas around.

If you are pressed for time, then an alternative method of selecting the best ideas is to give everyone five points. They can allocate points to their favorite ideas in any way that they want. They can give one point to five separate ideas or all five to one idea. After everyone has voted, total the points and select the best for further action.

Close the meeting by thanking everyone for their input. Mention again one of two of the best, most inventive or funniest ideas. Then see which ideas you can implement – even if they are small things.
People enjoy short, high-energy brainstorms that lead to actions. These meetings can motivate people, improve efficiency and drive innovation.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Getting Outside Your Box

If I hear the phrase “think outside the box” one more time, I am going to explode. That old saw has been around for decades and is so hoary the cardboard has all rotted away. We are all familiar with the overused phrase, “thinking outside the box.” For purposes of trying to make a point, I am going to use the analogy one more time as it applies to people rather than ideas, then try to forget the phrase ever existed. For this article, I want to assume us as individuals, and probe ways we can break out of our constraints in order to get more out of life.Ganduri 1 Oct21

The concept I wanted to share is the question, “How can you know when you are operating in a box, and what steps can you take to get out of it?” Perhaps a corollary question might be, “Why would you want to get outside your box?” These questions sound innocent and easy enough to address, but the more you think about them, the more intriguing they become. To begin with, let’s define what being “in a box” means, in the context of this article.

Ganduri 2  Oct21

Just for a moment, think about some of the things you would do if there were no constraints in your life. I believe we accept constraints too readily and need some kind of jolt every once in a while to recognize that we are really steering the ship of our life. You are in a box when you are imposing some kind of walls or barriers that contain you and prevent the freedom to do things that would enrich your life in some way. With that broad definition, I doubt there is a person alive who is not in some kind of a box every day of his or her life.

I will list six methods you can use to create the freedom to do more of those elusive things that are on your bucket list. My question is, what other methods would you add to my list to make it more complete?

  1. Take Personal Responsibility – Your attitudes form a large portion of self constraints
  2. Recognize Your Boxes – Learn to see through your blind spots
  3. Look for Creative Solutions – More than one way to take that trip
  4. Listen to your inner voice – vividly visualize your desire
  5. Document your goals – write down what you want to do
  6. Just Do It! – Be concrete, and plan to do what you dream about

Here are some tips for recognizing the boxes you are creating for yourself and getting out of them.

1. Take Personal Responsibility

It is easy to blame circumstance, luck, situations, other people, low IQ, lack of money, and a host of other external factors for a feeling of helplessness. Blaming external factors is really taking the easy way out. The cold reality is that you almost always have the ability to at least influence external factors, and you always have the opportunity to choose your reaction to them. If you step up to the personal power that is built into every human being, you can find creative ways to eventually burrow through the sides of the boxes that constrain you.

2. Learn to Recognize Your Boxes

If you have a blind spot about the box that contains you, it is impossible to feel the anticipation of what it might be like to get rid of it. I don’t know, who the author is for this quote, but it is one of my favorite top 10 quotations: “Success comes in cans… failures in can’ts.” Whenever we think we cannot do something, that is a signal that we are in some kind of box. That may be a good or bad thing, but at least we need to be conscious of it.

3. Look For Creative Solutions

Looking for alternative solutions to the blockages that hold us back can be a kind of game that really pays off. The logical approach to take may be only one of numerous ways to break out of your box.

Here is an example: Suppose I wanted to know what it is like to be a ballet dancer. If you could look at me, you would immediately giggle, because my build is the opposite of what is required (and I am not a female either). A straightforward approach would be to buy some of those tie-on slippers and sign up for ballet lessons. Just the thought of me trying to do a pirouette in tights causes me to hide under the bed.

Am I blocked from experiencing that aspect of life? Not at all! There are dozens of ways I can become more aware of what it is like to be a ballet dancer. Reading, watching documentaries, corresponding with dancers, going to the ballet, etc., are all alternative ways to have that life experience.

4. Listen To Your Inner Voice

When you feel uneasy about some course of action, don’t be embarrassed to go with your feelings. Do not let logic or group pressure talk you into something that doesn’t feel right. Trust your instincts and listen to your inner voice. We all have levels of knowledge that cannot be explained by logic or science, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The more you listen to that little inner voice in your head, the clearer it gets. Instead of ignoring this unexplainable sense, develop it by paying attention and acting accordingly.

When we ignore a warning and have to pay a high price for our decision, that’s called regret. On the other hand, the absence of a problem is the same as a blessing.

5. Document Your Goals

If you have not documented what you would like to do, how can you tell what other boxes you might like to sit in for a while? Lou Holtz tells a cute story about how he lost his job one time and was really depressed being out of work. His wife bought him a book on setting goals. Without ambitious goals, the spark of life is missing, so Lou started writing down some goals. He wanted to go to the White House for dinner, he wanted to be on The Tonight Show, he wanted to coach at Notre Dame, he wanted to be Coach of the Year. After he got done writing down all his goals, he was pretty excited. He went to his wife and said, “Look at these goals, I have got 107 of those suckers and we are going to do every one of them.” His wife replied, “Gee, that’s nice. Why don’t you add ‘get a job’?” So they made it 108. He said his whole life changed.

6. Just Do It

Too many people are living on a desert island called “Someday Isle.” Do you know how many people have started a book but never finished it? I know dozens of people in that circumstance. I also know others who say “I have got a book in me, and someday I am going to get to it.” Or someone else might say, “Someday I am going to take a cruise.” I think we need to be careful with the phrase “Someday I’ll,” because it means we are content to sit in our box and perpetually dream about some other experience. What a tragedy to be lying on your death bed and regret not doing things that you always dreamed of doing. If you can no longer climb your mountain, at least you can go to the mountain, see it, and smell the fresh air.

Have the resolve to be some of the things that you have imagined in your dreams. If you are creative, there are ways to rip open the side of your box and perhaps create a bigger box or leave entirely for some period of time. What fun, and isn’t that what life is supposed to be all about?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.