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"The Perfect Brainstorm" – Breakthrough Brainstorming Guide By Michelle Villalobos


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Generally speaking, brainstorming isn't nearly as effective as people think it is. Why? Because most groups go about it all wrong. Find out why, and how to run a PRODUCTIVE brainstorming session. By Michelle Villalobos.

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"The Perfect Brainstorm" – Breakthrough Brainstorming Guide By Michelle Villalobos

  1. 1. Breakthrough Brainstorming: A Guide “Brainstorms are fun to lead and attend. They build teamwork. They feel productive. But, they usually don't work.” (Alan Rosenspan) From our criminal justice system to our judicial processes, our educational structures to our political system, the value of “teams” is possibly one of the most deeply ingrained beliefs in American culture. In corporate America, teamwork involves brainstorming sessions and team-based project management; our criminal justice system relies on a jury of peers deliberating and arriving at a unanimous decision; Harvard Business School requires incoming MBAs join teams of people with whom they will work throughout their entire course of study; and few of us would argue the merits of democracy as the best way to run a government. In terms of “conventional wisdom,” most of us wholeheartedly buy into the notion that the best results arise when we get together as a team, receive loads of input and reach a consensus. So why is it that “people brainstorming individually produce more and higher-quality ideas than the same number of people brainstorming together.”? (Alan Rosenspan) Consider the following excerpt from “What’s Next: The Idiocy of Crowds” by David H. Freedman (as published in, June 4, 2007): The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases, individuals do much better on their own.... In fact, the notion that individuals outthink and out-decide groups is so well established among experts that they don't bother to study it anymore. Instead, the hot question among psychologists and organizational behaviorists is why the rest of us persist in keeping this wrong-headed notion alive. ‘We've been trying to find out what seduces us into thinking teams are so wonderful,’ says Natalie Allen, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario who has studied what she calls ‘the romance of teams.’…. Consider that paragon of group magic, the brainstorming session. Bernard Nijstad, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, explains that if you take a group of 12 people and have half brainstorm together on a topic while the other six go it alone, all 12 will usually agree that the group experience was more productive – even though those working alone almost always end up with more good ideas…. Things only get worse when a team is charged with actually making a decision. One of the biggest problems is that it's easy for a few members of a group who think the same way – but who may be flat-out wrong – to sway the opinions of others. Consensus steadily grows until a majority is reached, at which point even people who have confidence in their dissenting, higher-quality opinion are likely to bow to the group. If you've ever wondered how Enron's managers could have convinced themselves they were running a good company, or how a jury could have found O.J. Simpson innocent, now you know. Of course, you could bring independent thinkers to your groups – but then you'll run into the problem of deadlock. ‘About half of all groups don't reach any conclusion at all,’ says Nijstad. As David Ogilvy once said, "Search the parks and search the cities. You’ll find no statues of committees." Sometimes, however, there’s just no getting around the need to get lots of ideas and opinions in order to develop a project. In these cases, there are ways to make the brainstorming process more effective and efficient. Mivista Consulting, Inc. 305.992.8379
  2. 2. First, let’s examine some of the usual problems with brainstorming (these are taken from two main sources: Alan Rosenspan’s “The Perfect Brainstorm” and “Effective Brainstorm Techniques,” from • Production blocking. Working in a group can actually inhibit some people’s contribution and creativity. For example, “I’d better shut up for a minute and give someone else a turn. Shoot. What was my idea again? I forgot….” • Free riding. This is also known as “social loafing” and is the opposite of “social energizing” whereby personal creativity is boosted rather than inhibited by the presence of others. For example, "Heck, other people are coming up with all the great ideas. They don’t need me. Let me check my Blackberry to see if Nicole wrote me back – we’re supposed to go to the beach tonight.” • Evaluation apprehension/Loss of face. For example, "I know there’s no such thing as a bad idea, but did you see George roll his eyes on that one? I’d better keep quiet." The fear of being judged or made to feel foolish can inhibit individuals during an idea-generating session. • Performance matching. "That was my idea an hour ago! Damn, I’m doing all this work and spending all this time – for nothing. Meanwhile Michelle hasn’t come up with a good idea yet. This is a waste of time." When people are worried more about what each person contributes rather than what the group accomplishes. • Hot-housing/Pressure. The time pressure that is supposed to energize the process can instead produce a stressed state. On the other hand, leaving the session to run too long can create a feeling of “running in circles” and not making progress. This can make people shut down and withdraw. "Did she actually say we’re not leaving until we solve this problem? I’m not missing my dinner party. I’m not going to add any more – maybe we’ll get out quicker if we stop discussing every little thing.” • Anchoring. The creativity of the group can be reduced to producing variations of the first theme that emerges in the session. This can prevent individuals from coming up with new ways of approaching the problem. Each of these problems – among others - can cause brainstorms to fail. So what is “the right way” to handle a brainstorming session? First, you must have the right individual, a mediator, to run the session. Second, use the following guidelines on successful brainstorming, culled from several resources and integrated here. The basic steps involve: I. Preparation – 15 to 30 minutes II. Ideation – 30 to 45 minutes III. Evaluation – 15 to 30 minutes IV. Conclusion – 15 minutes V. Reporting Mivista Consulting, Inc. 305.992.8379
  3. 3. I. PREPARATION There seem to be two main schools of thought regarding idea preparation. One, that it should be minimal (to keep people open-minded) and the other, that individuals should prepare alone because individuals tend to come up with more and better quality ideas on their own. Here’s a breakdown of each perspective: • Don’t prepare: Preparations should be minimal because people get “attached” to ideas, and this is the opposite of what a brainstorming session should accomplish. You want people to enter the session with fresh minds unprejudiced by pre-planning. Since meetings often have to be scheduled way in advance, sometimes it is helpful to inform people of the topic, but not the specific issue. • Prepare: Since we know that individuals come up with more and better-quality ideas, we should ask group members to think of a set number of ideas before the session and then repeat the process during the session. This results in greater total output. (Kal Bishop) Because of the above seemingly conflicting theories, a good compromise is to encourage people to prepare ahead of time (i.e., come up with 10 great ideas), and ask them to put them up on the board right in the beginning, and then move on. Insist that they think of new ideas in the group session. This has the added benefit of “breaking the ice” and getting shy people used to opening up in front of the group. There are other things that you need to do before getting started that will also help you during the brainstorming session. For example, it is important to stress, at the invitation stage, that certain things will not be tolerated during the brainstorming session. For example: no mobile phones, email or leaving the meeting for any reason short of global catastrophe... Interruptions seriously disrupt the flow of the meeting and lead to poor results, while fiddling with a cell phone or email is disrespectful to those who are contributing wholeheartedly. If everyone’s ideas command equal attention and respect, everyone is more likely to contribute their very best. In addition, let people know that they must arrive on time. A brainstorm session cannot start until all are present. Note that many sources say that getting away from the office can help inspire imagination and ignite ideas. A fresh environment can lead to fresh thinking. Remember, however that the space should be isolated enough to ensure no interruptions. In addition, it is helpful to have fun snacks for munching and a whiteboard or other visual recording device for recording ideas. The session should have one clear facilitator/mediator whose only job is to focus the brainstorming and encourage positive dialogue and enforce the “ground rules” of engagement (below). In addition, one person should be chosen to record all ideas, even the far-fetched or even bizarre ones. This person should be able to type/write quickly and keep an accurate/complete record. II. IDEATION In order to be truly effective, brainstorming must gather all ideas on a specific topic in an atmosphere of constructive suggestion. Later, the group explores and prioritizes the ideas that have been put forward, and usually creates new solutions using elements from several suggestions. The key is that you need to separate the “creation” process from the “evaluation” process in order to fully release creativity. Writing and editing cannot happen simultaneously. Mivista Consulting, Inc. 305.992.8379
  4. 4. The first step for effective brainstorming is for the mediator to introduce the issue, as narrowly defined as possible, and write it on a whiteboard (ideally it should be stated in the form of a question). Below that, write: ABSOLUTELY NO QUASHING and explain that quashing can be everything from obvious criticism (“that’ll never work”) to even seemingly innocuous (even if true) remarks (“we tried that last year”). The word “quashing” is good because it can be humorous and is not as harsh as “no criticizing” or “don’t be negative”. So calling people on it is not as hurtful and not as likely to disrupt the session or cause tension. Quashing is not conducive to brainstorming because it immediately tells everyone in the session that ideas will be criticized; this in turn causes brainstormers to be more cautious about proposing ideas, and fosters negativity. Quashing is the worst thing that can happen to a brainstorming session. Ensure that everyone understands this. Let people know how long the ideation portion of the session will last. 30 to 45 minutes is ideal. More than that and the meeting loses momentum and gains little in additional creativity. Having a timer helps and so does reminding people periodically of how much time is left. Some ground rules for ideation: • SUSPEND JUDGEMENT: Don’t judge your own or other people’s ideas while they are being shared. There are no dumb ideas. Period. This is not the stage (yet) at which only serious, comprehensive solutions should be considered. • DON’T CRITICIZE IDEAS: This isn't a debate, discussion or forum for one person to display better knowledge or superiority over another. • BUILD ON OTHER PEOPLE’S IDEAS: Listen to what others are saying and try to build on thoughts rather than replace them. It is this building of ideas that leads to “out of the box” thinking and fantastic ideas. • QUANTITY over QUALITY: Reverse the thought of “quality over quantity.” Here we want quantity... the more creative ideas the better. See who can come up with the most ideas. Employ “Power Brainstorming” by challenging the team to come up with the most ideas they can, within a certain time limit (i.e., 10 minutes) Put a sequential number next to each idea. Numbering helps participants see how brainstorming is progressing and helps people keep track when jumping back and forth between ideas. The first ideas proposed will almost inevitably be obvious ideas. Once people run out of obvious ideas, they will begin stretching their minds more. This is when you begin to see more creative ideas come up. This is also when inevitably someone will attempt to quash an idea. At this point it is absolutely essential that the mediator step in and remind this person that ABSOLUTELY NO QUASHING is allowed. Otherwise, the creativity of the session will be seriously undermined. This technique should help to strip all ideas of biases stemming from the skill of the presenter, because often passion and skillful presentation can augment an otherwise dull idea while shyness can inhibit the reception of a great one! Furthermore, people’s status in a group may make others more open or closed off to ideas they generate. Writing everything down ensures “all ideas are treated equal.” Mivista Consulting, Inc. 305.992.8379
  5. 5. From time to time, the moderator should inform the brainstormers of the time remaining. If good ideas are still flowing quickly during the last few minutes of the session, the mediator can extend the session by a few minutes. However, usually this is neither necessary nor helpful. Once time is up, inform the brainstormers and compliment their ideas and their participation. Inform them that the next step is the evaluation. III. ESTABLISHING EVALUATION CRITERIA Once the ideation process is ended (notice it needs to be “ended,” not just fizzle out or else the energy will be gone for the evaluation portion), the next step is to evaluate the ideas. In order to effectively evaluate, we need to establish evaluating criteria. The criteria should reflect the intended implementation of the ideas. For example, if you are brainstorming a new tagline for a product, criteria could include: “connotes quality,” “is a manageable size,” “works in Spanish and English,” “fits within existing branding initiatives,” or “includes a call to action.” Each idea will be evaluated by each criterion, so it is helpful to use criteria that can be evaluated on a continuum. For example, “can we launch this product by the end of the year?” is a poor criterion as it takes a yes or no answer, whereas “speed of bringing to market (ideally before end of year)” is a better one. Criteria may sometimes reflect lack of negative attributes, such as “low price without connoting lack of quality.” Having 5 evaluating criteria is a good number because it enables a detailed evaluation within a reasonable time frame. Nonetheless, a few criteria more or won’t matter too much. The mediator can also contribute to these criteria. To save time/make the process more efficient, it is instead okay to let the mediator/team leader define the criteria beforehand and introduce them to the group and encourage input. IV. EVALUATION The first step of the evaluation is simply to clarify any ideas in question and choose those that are feasible solutions for the issue. Ask the brainstormers to review the ideas and consider (on their own) which are good solutions and which are not. Group ideas together if they are similar or “go together.” Open up discussion to talk about ideas that may or may not be workable. Cross out the ones that are clearly not. Note that because we’re crossing ideas out now (rather than during ideation), people have generally dissociated from who came up with which idea, and the group “owns” them all. Continue until you have between three and eight strong ideas. If the mediator sees that the brainstormers have missed ideas that he or she believes has potential, he or she should circle them. Once this has been completed, select the first chosen idea and take it through each of the criteria, rating how well the idea meets the criterion on a scale of zero to five, where zero indicates the idea does not meet the criterion at all and five indicates it meets the criterion completely. There are two great approaches to calculating the scores: • Discuss the scores as a group and reach consensus for each score. Write those scores on the whiteboard. Mivista Consulting, Inc. 305.992.8379
  6. 6. • Have each brainstormer write her own evaluation scores for each idea. The moderator can then take a survey of all scores, calculate the average value for each idea and write it on the whiteboard. This has the advantage of not “poisoning” an idea and letting each person truly express his/her opinion, numerically. Continue in this fashion until all ideas have been evaluated and have a score. The higher the score, the better the idea in terms of meeting the criteria you set for the brainstorming session. When you are done, you will have a list of ideas each with a score reflecting how well it meets the criteria. Generally the top three to five ideas will be the most suitable. V. CONCLUSION To conclude, the moderator and the brainstormers should discuss the top ideas noting additional feedback regarding the issue. Any relevant comments should be noted. Then, agree to what the next steps are and assign actions to relevant team members (it helps if you let people volunteer for what sections the want to work on – this way they feel “ownership” of their items). Important: Establish Deadlines. Overall, the entire brainstorming session should take about 90 minutes to 2 hours. 15 minutes of introduction, 30-45 minutes for ideation, 30 minutes for evaluation and discussion and 15 minutes to conclude. VI. REPORTING & FOLLOW UP Finally, it helps to write a report and send it to the participants in order to reinforce that their time and effort was appreciated and that their contribution will have been worthwhile. A report should include: • The issue. • The evaluation criteria. • The top ranking ideas and their scores. • Any relevant comments from the conclusion of the session. • Follow up plans/deadlines/assignments. • List of all ideas raised (optional). Following these guidelines should help make brainstorming sessions more efficient, effective and even more fun! Mivista Consulting, Inc. 305.992.8379
  7. 7. Sources: 1. “The Perfect Brainstorm” Alan Rosenspan © 2007 Alan Rosenspan & Associates 281 Needham Street Newton, MA 02464 2. “What’s Next: The Idiocy of Crowds” David H. Freedman 3. “What makes teams work?” Fast Company 4. “Managing Creativity & Innovation” Kal Bishop, MBA. 5. “The Complete Guide to Managing Traditional Brainstorming Events” Jeffrey Baumgartner Published by Bwiti (a company) Diestbrugstraat 45 3071 Erps-Kwerps Belgium Mivista Consulting, Inc. 305.992.8379