Koliso suggested using strategic brainstorming focused on the key issues the team was facing. The CEO wasn’t very keen. If you’ve ever been part of a brainstorming session, chances are the main thing you remember is having to shout out lots of ideas in a limited time and compete for your ideas to be heard. This CEO thought brainstorming was a little childish and probably not suitable for a senior leadership team.
That’s not how brainstorming should be viewed. Brainstorming has developed a bad reputation. It hasn’t always been this way; most people don’t know brainstorming was invented. Here is how to brainstorm better (in six steps) based on its origin.
In 1954 Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, founded CEF, the Creative Education Foundation. CEF bills themselves as “where brainstorming began.” As well as inventing brainstorming, Osborn co-founded the ad firm, BBDO. His book, Applied Imagination, lives on in the work of CEF. Along with Sidney Parnes, Osborn developed the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process we know as brainstorming.
Osborn defines brainstorming as, “A creative conference for the sole purpose of producing a checklist of ideas—ideas which can serve as leads to problem solution—ideas which can subsequently be evaluated and further processed.”
That’s what most of us recognize as brainstorming, but that’s not the way it’s usually practiced. Normally, brainstorming is just the part of the conference or meeting where people try to come up with as many ideas as possible to solve the problem… usually followed by some frustration with the quality of the ideas and the planned follow-up.
We sat down with our client and went through how we could prepare the team for their problem-solving session based on what we know about how teams work and the psychology of creativity. The following are the six strategic steps.
It’s not as obvious as it sounds. Rather than do a session on the fly, the process of brainstorming works best with careful planning. Because you ask people to step outside their normal boundaries, it helps if you can define the few boundaries they do have. Define the question, outline the parameters and make the problem easily understood. What’s more, involve the team in coming to terms with the problem so it’s crisply described, which leads to a crisp solution.
If you’re going to have a good brainstorming session, it helps to let people know about the session in advance. People will sleep on it. Letting a problem sit in the back of their minds will help them arrive at solutions during the session.
Koliso made sure the team knew the session was approaching, what kinds of questions they would be tackling, and the kinds of solutions the company needed to find.
Thinking is just like any other kind of exercise. You need to provide a few warm-up exercises to get people prepared to be creative.
The problem with ice-breakers and similar is that they can feel childish. Koliso warmed up the team by having them put themselves in the minds of their customers. We asked them to imagine their issue from their customers’ perspective. How would clients describe the quality and operational issues they were facing? How would clients describe the impact on their businesses?
This is the part people usually think of as the brainstorming. When people are coming up with ideas in a brainstorming session there are only four guidelines they need to keep in mind.
• Don't judge the ideas
• Piggy back on other people’s ideas
• Go for quantity
• Go wild and have fun
Most people like this the most. The key is to ensure all ideas are recorded and expressed. To make sure our group didn’t hold back, we had them work under time deadlines. Within a short while the team was trying to flood the group with their ideas so as not to be cut short by the time constraint.
5: Solution finding.
Participants often become frustrated with their lists of wild ideas. There needs to be a clear break so that the ideas can now be narrowed down to those few that will have the most impact on the problem. At this time participants need rules and guidelines to help them evaluate.
Our CEO was concerned that brainstorming would only lead to off-the-wall ideas that wouldn’t be practical or feasible. With that in mind, we agreed in advance on a few rules that we could use to evaluate ideas after the ideation stage. Basically we created a stage-gate situation—where ideas had to pass strict criteria to make it through the gates—until only a few were left standing at the end.
Once the brainstorming ends and the ideas are prioritized, there needs to be a clear path to action.
We regularly create one-page plans for our clients for their key projects and accountabilities. Almost any project we’ve ever seen can be summarized in one page using a simple structure that lends itself to visible action and accountability.
This client came up with a number of options short-listed for implementation. The very process of working together on creating the solution broke down the silos the CEO was worried about. The members were energized to make succeed what they helped create.
When used well, brainstorming is a genuine team-building exercise as well as a problem solving technique that harnesses the creativity of all the participants.
Interested in learning more about this topic for your organization? Contact us.
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