5 Strategies To Help Make Brainstorming More Productive
Why brainstorming needs to be productive
One of the biggest challenges with being innovative is the need for creativity, but creativity within specific guidelines. Anyone can come up with a creative idea, but the feasibility of that idea is bounded by certain constraints. For example, painters and artists are lauded for their creativity and vision, but productive artists know the constraints of their medium. An oil painter, for example, will think creatively in the context of what can be done with oil paints and not apply notions specific to bronze casting. Imagine, trying to incorporate molten bronze into an oil painting. Attempting to use molten bronze when painting a landscape would not really be feasible or particularly productive. Innovative? Maybe. Impractical? Yes, I’m going to say it’s impractical.
However, this is a common problem I see when organizations attempt to harness creativity without truly understanding the creative process. We ape behaviors and approaches we see in the media, maybe experienced once at a conference, or read about in an blog post written just well enough to give you a taste of the process, but not really share what’s in the secret sauce. So what do I see? Well first, I see a person in authority decide that a change or innovation is needed. So they gather the people with whom they have some influence, directly or indirectly, and then she will explain what she wants and solicit ideas from the assembled crew. Over the next two and a half hours the crew will share information, plans, agendas, compare ideas, and engage in a dialogue that reflects the level of education, expertise, and experience of everyone in the room. Sounds like a good productive meeting of the minds, yes? Maybe. Sometimes this process produces the desired outcome, but I want to tell you the rest of the story, the story we can all relate to, but shrink away from discussing around the water cooler for fear of becoming, “that guy.” During this hypothetical meeting, our organizer proceeds poke holes in most of the ideas provided to her at her request with little to no notice. One person in the room will just sit there and watch what the others are doing, one person can’t stop looking at his phone, another is eager to suck up to the organizer, and the other one is so smart that no one understands what she’s saying. At the end of the meeting everyone will return to their work, no minutes will be distributed, and ultimately the meeting organizer continues with business as usual. Assuming that all those folks have a salary that equates to around $75 an hour, that two and half hour “brainstorming” session that produced no tangible results cost the organization about $1,000 in overhead. Personally, I find that waste a little sad, because a bit of knowledge about meeting management and the creative process could have turned that $1,000 investment in the time of those experts into an idea that might have improved customer satisfaction, reduced costs, or maybe planted the seed of a new product that could open up a whole new revenue stream.
Learn to think inside the box
I always cringe when I hear TV commercials or leaders clamouring for more, "Thinking outside the box." What they really mean is that the collective 'we' should expand our horizons or look at a challenge from a different angle. However, what I tend to see as a reaction to demands for, "thinking outside the box," are people using it as an opportunity to try and show off. Another offer the most ludicrous ideas in a genuine manner, but not have the professionalism to hear, "That's not feasible," from technical experts and not get offended. This last risk is a rather pernicious one since it can lead to the evolution of poisonous personality politics over time.
How do we make brainstorming more productive?
There are ways to make brainstorming fun, expansive, creative, but also keep it grounded in reality. The following tips are drawn from one of my favorite books on the subject - Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers.
This book has been a lifesaver for me over the years, and whenever I apply the core rules and strategies from this book I have had excellent success with facilitating groups. Here are some of my personal tips based on applying the gamestorming principles outlined in the book.
5 tips for brainstorming
Engage The Right People
Keep Your Brainstorming Low-Tech
Timeboxing is Essential
Silence Is Golden
Make People Write It Down
Engage the right people
Getting the right people around the table is essential. I can't tell you how unproductive a brainstorming session is if you include folks who either don't have the technical skill or the basic knowledge of the topic being brainstormed. To use another example, while it's a good idea to include a marketing manager in brainstorming new features for an upcoming product or service, it might not be the best idea to include them in brainstorming about the design of those features.
While this might seem counterintuitive let me provide an example. Let's say you are smartwatch company and you are planning a new watch. It would make sense to include the marketing manager in brainstorming what features the watch should have to help it be competitive in the marketplace. It would not be a good idea in include the marketing manager in the brainstorming of how those features are to be designed and implemented in the new product. The marketing manager may want to be kept informed as the product develops, but they may not see further involvement as a good use of their time. Even worse, they may see further involvement as an opportunity 'refine' the design with the claim that, "I know what our customers want," without offering solid data or research to back up the claim.
While you might feel the desire, or pressure, to bow to organizational politics and include people out of politeness or because they are a difficult personality to deal with if they don't feel included, you should resist this urge. Down that road lies a series of concessions and compromises that can leave your product looking like Frankenstein's Monster.
Keep your brainstorming low tech
There are lots of products that offer the hope of digital brainstorming success, but in my experience these tend to be rather clunky and lacking in flexibility. While I am by no means a definitive expert on the array of software solutions available, the ones I have used don't seem to offer the flexibility and organic feel that more low-tech options provide.
My personal favorite are extra sticky post-it notes in a variety of colors, a giant white or chalkboard, the appropriate writing tool for that board in a variety of colors, and stickers. Gamestorming provides more in-depth details around the implementation of these tools, but I will summarize them here.
Reasons why low-tech brainstorming tools are awesome
The post-it notes are cheap, easy to manipulate, and provide just enough room to write a single fact or idea.
Your writing space should be flexible and allow you to draw, and redraw, a general framework to guide the brainstorming tasks.
Making these multi-colored isn't just about keeping things fun, but it's also about using color to help categorize ideas.
Stickers are another way to add depth to an idea or fact and enables cross-tagging of those ideas.
Time boxing is essential
Two sayings apply here...
Nothing motivates like a deadline.
Give 'em an inch and they will take a mile.
Nothing motivates like a deadline
When people have deadlines they tend to be more productive, it's a constraint they need to work within and a little bit of pressure goes a long way to keeping the creative juices flowing.
Give 'em an inch and they take a mile
Additionally, if discussions aren't carefully timeboxed, this can lead to people wandering down paths that are 'interesting', but not really germane to the topic. There's no need to be draconian about this. Granting an extra minute or two for a specific part of the brainstorming session isn't going to make or break things, but this should be tightly managed to make sure the group stays on task and on time.
Silence is golden
One of my favorite aspects about Gamestorming is the use of period of silent brainstorming. This is essential and should not be considered a point of compromise because, "Well, that just not how our team works." There are a few solid reasons why this is a practice all teams should learn to develop.
Silence forces brainstormers to think and not just talk
First, it gives everyone a chance to actually collect their thoughts. This prevents 'listening just in order to respond' and avoids long rambling debates that don't really add to the conversation.
Sometimes the quietest people have great things to say
Second, it gives the wallflowers a chance to provide input. Meandering brainstorming discussions have a tendency to allow dominant personalities to take center stage which is risky because the best ideas may come from the quietest folks in the room, which leads me to the final point in this post.
Make people write It down
One thing I see a number of teams do is delegate one person to take notes for a meeting and then distribute the notes to the rest of the team afterwards. This isn't a bad practice, but it's often a problem when that same practice is applied to brainstorming sessions where there are lots of little details that can potentially get lost.
Note takers are at risk for mental overload
People can talk faster than they can write and this leaves the note taker at an extreme disadvantage. Gamestorming advocates that each person in the brainstorming session should write down their ideas on the post-it notes. This makes sure that ideas and details are not lost and that your note taker (who is often a team member) can contribute to the discussion.
Teams members need to share a collective responsibility for documenting their ideas
This doesn't mean that notes shouldn't be taken, it's just that the team should develop a culture where the person stating the idea is responsible for writing it down. Over time, your team will develop two new aspects to it's culture: more ideas are documented and the individuals offering those ideas tend to take more accountability for them since they are responsible for the documentation of the idea. More importantly, team members who tend to just throw ideas out left and right then claim no one listens to them will reduce their chatter and start taking ownership over their own ideas.
What are your favorite brainstorming strategies?
Please share this post with your coworkers and professional networks. Ask them what they think and use it as an opportunity to start conversations that could lead to more productive brainstorming sessions for your teams...just remember to write it down!