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Best Brainstorming Techniques

© DNA Seattle

How to structure brainstorming meetings with techniques for maximum effectiveness.

Think you’ve participated in a brainstorming meeting recently? Chances are, you’re wrong. Experts say this powerful tool in a company’s creativity toolbox is woefully misunderstood—and most employees who think they are brainstorming are just talking.

“What other people call brainstorming, we would call a meeting,” says Matt Phillips, president of Phillips + Co., a Chicago-based strategy consultancy that has worked with the likes of Kraft, Starwood and Dell. “For companies who have not seen a professionally executed brainstorming or ideation session, it can be radically different from what they are used to.”

While both involve some people in a room, Phillips says that with the fi rst 10 to 15 minutes of a meeting, one or two ideas will be thrown out by the boss, who is usually leading the session. Those will then become the theme of the entire discussion.

“In a brainstorming session, you are trying to do the opposite. You don’t want to give the keys to senior management,” Phillips says. “Rather, you want to tap the brains of everyone in the room and use techniques to think much more divergently.” Meaning: Write down those two ideas, then go off in a different direction and think up a dozen more. But before you even get to that point, you need to make sure you have defined the problem and have the right people in the room—and the right person up at the front. As is the case with any meeting, preparation is key to a successful brainstorming session—and is often overlooked.

“Planning is the most important step,” says Shari Rife, manager of creativity and facilitation with Buffalo, N.Y.–based Rich Products Corp. “Without the right environment, without the right leadership, without the right support, innovation is going to fall flat.”

Rife should know—she is tasked with helping to foster the food product powerhouse’s culture of creativity, from training executives to facilitate brainstorming sessions and engender a creative spirit to leading brainstorming sessions herself. The company’s three-day workshop on creative problem-solving for leaders has trained more than 300 employees thus far. The results show up daily in everything from new products like the Ultimate Breakfast Round, a nutritious breakfast cookie that is now served in schools across the country, to innovative processes to cut back on spoilage. Both of these ideas are big successes for the company—and both came out of brainstorming meetings.

Banish the Boss

But Rife says even a boss who has taken her workshop may not be the best choice to lead a brainstorming session—at least not on his or her own project.

“We discourage people from facilitating within their own department, because they are too close to the project and are probably going to want to participate,” Rife says. “Not that you can’t do it, but facilitators need to separate themselves from the ideas and focus on the process, which means you are taking yourself out of the content.”

Gerard Puccio, PhD, chair and professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, agrees. “What you don’t want is to have the problem owner or boss as the facilitator,” he says. “That can get ugly and unproductive, as participants try to please or sell to the boss” rather than suggest untested or unusual ideas.

Build the Team

Selecting the facilitator isn’t the only issue, though. A brainstorming team needs to represent all diff erent levels of the department, from entry to top tier—and perhaps include people from other departments or even customers, vendors or others from outside the company. Phillips + Co. draws from a panel of about 250 people, from NASA scientists to illustrators, to add a different perspective to clients’ brainstorming sessions. Even if your planning doesn’t allow for an outsider to join your brainstorming session, Phillips says you can still bring a new perspective to your problem by employing what he refers to as an “other worlds” approach.

“Instead of continuing to look at a challenge through the lens of your own industry, look through the lens of another industry,” Phillips suggests. “If we were in the insurance business, we could say, how does State Farm do it, how do they do it at Geico, what about Allstate…But it can be much more creative and productive to say, what do they do in other industries—Starbucks, for instance. How do they engage with their customers?”

Establish the Ground Rules

Taking an “other worlds” approach, or similar methods that go outside the familiar, can bring on some crazy suggestions—and that’s a good thing. That old saw that no idea is a bad idea? A truly groundbreaking idea could be left unspoken because of self-editing, says Buffalo State’s Puccio: “When we’re asked to come up with ‘good’ ideas, we get so focused on evaluating the quality of the idea that we sometimes dismiss ideas prematurely—ideas that might actually turn out to be workable or valuable or breakthrough.” But some evidence reveals that the most productive brainstorming approach is to have individuals develop ideas independently, then to have the group dissect and think critically about the ideas, according to Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Another option is to get people out of their comfort zones: Rich’s Rife suggests asking an executive to toss out a really crazy idea before the meeting. “This gives permission for everyone else to think that way,” Rife says.

Plan for Implementation

Once participants have brainstormed all these blue-sky ideas, 9 times out of 10, they never get off the whiteboard. Experts agree that charting an implementation plan before the meeting even starts can ensure the best ideas move forward from blue sky to production line. “Your success rate will be much higher if you know what the next steps are in advance,” notes Phillips of Phillips + Co.

Whether you devote some time in the brainstorming meeting to “convergent thinking” (i.e., evaluating the ideas) or schedule a future meeting to do that, Puccio says you should allot about as much time to evaluating ideas as you did to brainstorming.

Ultimately, practicing real brainstorming can lead to an innovation culture, keeping your company competitive in ever-changing times. “Creativity and innovation is not just a point in time—it’s a behavior,” Rife says. “I don’t care if you are in the mailroom, if you are in legal or sales or R&D—you can do something diff erent to drive efficiencies, drive out costs and ultimately service the customer.”

Four tips for getting the most out of a brainstorming meeting

  • Establish a quota. “Focus on the gas pedal, not the brake,” Buffalo State’s Gerard Puccio says. Consider having a quota—a certain number of ideas in a certain time frame. That way, people will not be shy about tossing out suggestions that are off the wall.
  • Try Post-its. Rich’s Shari Rife asks participants to write one idea per Post-it for the fi rst few minutes of the meeting. Then they go around the room and share their ideas one at a time. It is a good icebreaker, and it also forces less outgoing members to speak out.
  • Consider the location. Meeting in the same old conference room is liable to elicit the same old ideas, Phillips + Co.’s Matt Phillips says. He brought one brainstorming group seeking ideas for new cleaning products to a million-dollar condo. As he explained,“Very little cleaning is done in a conference room.”
  • Use props. Toys, candies, music and wall art can all engender a sense of play, which is a great springboard for brainstorming, says Rife, who even includes scented markers in her brainstorming sessions.

Jeanne O’Brien Coffey writes frequently about business travel and employee motivation from her base north of Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Northshore magazine and numerous print and web outlets.

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