Since collaboration is prized at most companies, many business people have used a variety of brainstorming methods.
Brainstorming sessions usually take the form of team members being locked in a room covered in easel paper and sticky notes for a day or two. The loudest people on the team seem like they are having a competition to see who can contribute the most ideas regardless of whether they are good, while the rest of the team is distracted: Some people's eyes glaze over as others use social media or answer emails.
Group brainstorming methods typically democratize ideas (everyone contributing equally), but this may not draw the best innovations from the group. This is because team members can sometimes play too nice, and choose to just follow the majority's ideas. The people more comfortable with sharing their ideas are more likely to be heard. Those who may be afraid to speak their mind might become disengaged and stop participating. The group then looks for a middle ground where everyone can agree just to complete the exercise.
Instead of following this familiar cycle, consider using the following group brainstorming methods. They may lead to more innovative and surprising results.
1. Identify the actual problem that needs solving.
This brainstorming method can help get everyone on the same page. Before a scheduled brainstorming session, pose the problem you'll be working on to the group well in advance.
Try to make the problem very focused. Instead of asking “How can we increase sales?", try asking, “How can we retain the value of current customers longer?" Make sure everyone understands the details of the problem and what solutions have already been utilized to fix it before you start brainstorming.
2. Prepare individual ideas ahead of the meeting.
Now that the team knows what they'll be brainstorming about, you may want to ask them to submit their ideas to you before the meeting. These ideas can then be displayed individually at the meeting.
Using this brainstorming method can help team members contribute their best thoughts on the matter before anything begins. It can also make for a better starting point when you begin brainstorming. Now, instead of people editing their ideas on the fly to fit the group dynamic, you're hearing their real thoughts.
3. Use an independent decider to manage the brainstorming session.
I think brainstorming methods are best implemented without a democratic framework. I recommend having a “decider" outside the company hierarchy so they do not give preference to senior leaders during the process.
The decider can determine who talks next and how the group interacts. Let team members know about the structured process the brainstorming method will follow so everyone knows what to expect. At the end, the decider can truly pick the most innovative ideas that come out of the session.
4. Encourage your team to look at ideas critically.
Most brainstorming methods state that there are “no bad ideas" and that everyone should be supportive of everything that is brought to the table. Unfortunately, this typically leads to a lot of mediocre thoughts.
Instead, have the decider encourage critical and respectful evaluation of all ideas. Discussing why something may or may not work can help spark a better solution.
5. Resist brainstorming in a boring conference room.
Brainstorming sessions often happen in a conference room. Staring at walls, however, may not bring out the innovation in most people.
Consider finding creative meeting spaces that can help generate ideas. It could be a place where team members can free associate with many of the strange objects that may be in the room. Other spaces might include local botanical gardens or other green places. You could also have people move from where they're sitting in the space every hour so they don't get too comfortable. This brainstorming method can help them see the conversation from different perspectives.
6. Use tricks to spark critical thinking.
Ask the group how to achieve the opposite of what the company actually wants to do—for example, “How can we lose customers as quickly as we gain them?" Not only is this fun, but it can then be easier to get people to talk about the best ways to keep customers. Adding unrealistic constraints can also get team members thinking outside of the box. For example, tell them the budget to solve the problem is only $100 and see what they come up with.
After any brainstorming session, consider working on just a few ideas at a time. I would advise making sure there are follow ups to these ideas, such as who is assigned to what tasks and when they are to be completed. You can then determine when these results will be integrated into the company's daily processes so they can become a reality.
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