7 Practical Steps for Effective Brainstorming

Most attempts at brainstorming are doomed before they even start! Reverse this tendency by asking better questions, and generate better ideas that your organization is more likely to act on.

A group of people are herded into a room as a consequence of  urges to “get creative!”, “think outside the box!” & “There are no bad ideas!”.

Sound familiar? How many times have you walked into a room and just didn’t know where to start? Was it as painful as pulling teeth, or better yet, like trying to suck ideas out of your head that just weren’t there to begin with?

This post was inspired after reading a McKinsey Quarterly article on this very subject.

When any fiscal period comes to an end I’m usually called into organizations to help them learn from their recent past, and transform these learnings into rock solid action items that are going to keep them on track toward their year-end goals. This includes developing new ideas & sharing best-practices acquired through many years of multiple disciplined efforts across varying industry sectors around the planet.

What I liked about the article I read was its highlight of the “upfront” work that must take place before you ever get into the room.. and that’s why a Strategy in a Day exercise is so effective.

Where to start? Know your organization’s decision-making criteria..

One of the main reasons good ideas often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider. “Think outside the box!” doesn’t help when external circumstances or company policies create bigger (sometimes invisible) boxes that the organization must live within.

Ask the right questions

That’s your second step, but how do you get to the right questions? For one, reseting assumptions & delving through open questioning is the best start. Use questions as the platform for idea generation. Build your exercise around a series of “right questions” that your team will explore in small groups. The trick is to identify questions with two characteristics, and start asking them before you even get into the room.

First, they should force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. Why? Because whenever you look for new ways to attack an old problem you naturally gravitate toward thinking patterns that worked in the past. Research shows that, over time, you’ll come up with fewer good ideas, despite increased effort. Changing your participants’ perspective will shake up their thinking.

Second,  a characteristic of a right question is that it limits the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes.

Choose the right people

The rule here is simple: pick people who can answer the questions you’re asking. Example, I recently invited an internal layer of middle management who had never participated in a collective brainstorming with the senior executive team. The frankness, differing perspective & practical (moderated) dialogue identified practicalities that would otherwise have stayed below the surface.

Divide and conquer

Isolate “idea crushers”.. These people are otherwise suitable for the workshop but, intentionally or not, typically prevent others from suggesting good ideas. They come in three varieties: bosses, “big mouths,” and subject matter experts. As a facilitator, make sure that everyone at the table feels equal, regardless of hierarchical position occupied or years of seniority.

Keep a structured pace

Moving from analyzing “what’s working” & “what’s not” straight into creating new opportunities & action items. Assign accountability for the focus areas for the upcoming fiscal period even before you identify your top five priorities in each of these focus areas. This will help ensure ownership!

Wrap it up & make it count

Make sure you end your session with a summarization of the actions agreed & who is accountable for what. Tip.. “accountable” means someone makes sure something happens, where “responsible” means the people who will actually carry-out the SMART Criteria based action plan.

Follow up quickly & often

Don’t let more than 15 day intervals go by without taking “pulse checks” to track the progress of each focus area & respective 2-5 top priorities. This is the future of your organization you’re tracking.. anything less is simple irresponsibility.

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