Brainstorming – An Important and Underutilized Tool
J Gary McDaniel
In today’s business world, creating an organizational structure in which employees work in teams is becoming more and more essential to company success. Teams bring together people with diverse skills to create something that no one person could do alone. A well-planned team improves motivation. Communication is higher on teams, and the diverse skill set means teams can discover new approaches. Because teams have specific shared goals, team members usually enjoy greater autonomy, variety, task identity, task significance, and feedback. And, IMHO, the most important tool that a team can use is brainstorming. And, unfortunately, it is often underutilized.
Merriam-Webster describes brainstorming as “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group”. In controlled conditions and a free-thinking environment, teams approach a problem by such means as “How Could We” questions. The idea is to produce a vast array of ideas and draw links between them to find potential solutions.
Besides solving problems, one of the most important benefits of brainstorming activities is that it brings people together. Some of the major benefits of brainstorming include:
Working toward a goal
Unlocking new ideas
Valuing everyone’s opinion
Taking part in these critical thinking sessions can create an environment where people feel as if their managers and coworkers value their opinions. They also feel good about contributing to the solutions or process improvements that are implemented. And, it helps in achieving “buy-in” to that solution.
Brainstorming may seem to lack constraints, but to be effective; everyone must observe eleven rules and have someone acting as facilitator:
Allow time for preparation – provide the team a few days to think about some ideas. It will help to get things started quickly, avoiding the dreaded blank stares.
Set a time limit – Depending on the problem’s complexity, 15–60 minutes is normal.
Clearly define the problem – Team members should approach this clearly defined question, plan, or goal and stay on topic.
There are no dumb ideas...Period – Don’t criticize other people’s ideas (including body language). This is not a debate, discussion, or forum for one person to display superiority over another.
Encourage weird and wacky ideas – Further to the ban on killer phrases like “too expensive”, keep the floodgates open so everyone feels free to blurt out ideas (provided they’re on topic).
Build on other people’s ideas – Often, ideas trigger creativity. It’s a process of association where members expand on others’ ideas and reach new insights.
Aim for quantity – Reverse the thought of “quality over quantity.” Here we want quantity; the more creative ideas the better. The sifting-and-sorting process comes later.
Keep the session on topic – Great ideas in a brainstorming session can easily distract you from the activity. Stay focused on the task to create as many ideas as possible.
Stay visual – Diagrams and Post-It Notes help bring ideas to life and help others see things in different ways.
Allow one conversation at a time – To arrive at concrete results, it’s essential to keep on track this way and show respect for everyone’s ideas.
Edit ideas after the session – As simple as it might feel to edit the text or ideas, leave them. You want brainstorming to be a productive activity and anything that removes you from that process should wait until you finish the activity.
Companies are constantly working on solving problems and adjusting to changes both within and outside of their business. Brainstorming can be a very powerful tool to do just that, but it involves more than pulling your team into a room and asking them to put in their two cents. But when it is done right, brainstorming is a productive activity that can generate many unique solutions or ideas quickly. Use it!