The best help and insight I’ve ever had for brainstorming was a senior course in discussion and conference leadership at the University of Colorado, years ago. Although there was a lot of research and theory presented, it was primarily a hands-on course, with the prof as facilitator, using issues that were of importance to all of us. In other words, we worked on a project together and she intervened when necessary. Talk about learning!! It was just superb. She gave us insight and feedback like mad, and we had five weeks to get used to it all. By the end of that time, we were a well oiled, productive team, willing and capable to take on the subjects of mutual importance.
Yet, as a recent McKinsey article by Kevin and Shawn Coyne points out, most attempts at brainstorming are doomed from the start. Still, companies run on good ideas. As a result, teams and groups are inevitably probing for new, time-saving and productive process improvements.
So how can you get better brainstorming out of a team? There are a lot of things that won’t work: teams chosen for political reasons, telling people to “get creative” or “think outside the box,” working with a lot of group exercises, reminding people that there are “no bad ideas,” or even using outsiders that are unfamiliar with your business, etc., etc., etc.
Effective brainstorming requires a fair amount of preparation. Indeed, when I’m asked to facilitate a team, I’m quick to refuse unless I understand the business, its problems and needs. That means that I’ll do a fair amount of information gathering before the team meetings (note the plural—meetings). Furthermore, when facilitating it’s important for me to keep checking my information with the team in order to keep myself and them on target. Structure for the sessions is terrifically important, even imperative. So, here are seven steps for brainstorming, adapted from the Coynes, that really will work:
- Shape the decision criteria. For example, dwelling on products or IT changes that the company won’t fund is a waste of time. Talking to senior managers to gain the criteria BEFORE the team meetings is an excellent use of time. It’ll make the team far more focused and productive.
- Focus on the right questions. Decades of research on questions for your team to explore have been found to be an imperative. And that’s not easy. The trick is to get the right questions. As the Coynes suggest, questions should force the participants to new, unfamiliar perspectives. The second trick is to limit the topics for the team to explore, without being so restrictive that it forces the answers. For example, my architectural clients worked with a question such as “What are the key client mental models, that if diffused, will provide us with the most opportunities?” (We found that there were only five recurring models held by a base of more than 25 different clients, making it possible to create change conversations that brought architectural success.)
- Pick the right people. In other words, the only people of value are those that can answer the questions you’ve structured. You want “in-the-trenches” team members. Putting people on that architectural team that didn’t relate regularly with clients and construction people would be farcical. They wouldn’t understand what was going on.
- Small groups are an absolute necessity. The old research was that once a group got beyond 13 people, you were done for. We’ve found that 5 or 6 in a team is maximum. That way everyone has to talk and weigh in on ideas. They’re forced to speak up and the team is not so large that any would be fearful or hide. Although usually bosses get in the way, I’ve coached them so that they became peers and colleagues, rather than bosses. It can work, but it’ll take some time. Big mouths get shut down pretty quickly in a structured group.
- It’s not fast and furious. In structured brainstorming you may work with no more than two or three ideas over a period of an hour and a half. Although the first few minutes may generate a lot of talk, it quickly settles into just a few issues. In fact, you may find yourself coming back to those issues at the next meeting, largely because participants have spent time on them between sessions. And you’ll find a couple members attacking ideas. That, too, is very useful.
- Narrow the ideas generated. Suppose you’ve gotten a lot of ideas. It’s important to let participants know that execs may have info they don’t. That means nothing is in concrete until there is exec feedback on them.
- Follow through—quickly. With the groups that I’ve worked with, it’s important to try on the ideas, review and adjust. Sometimes the success of an ideas means that we enlarge it. Other times, its failure means that we have to replace it. That’s all normal stuff.