To improve the brainstorm process in your organization, so far we have covered the steps of setting the proper atmosphere, clarifying overall goals, setting immediate expectations, and getting the ball rolling with idea generation. I put a lot of emphasis on the Idea Generation Step of the Innovative Idea Process because it carries the highest risk of frustration. It is the stage that most often leaves people wanting to poke their eyes out with an ice-pick. A growing body of research has suggested that group brainstorming is actually less effective than just letting people work alone. One study involved three groups of people…
… Group One used the classic brainstorm model (involving free association with no critique of others’ ideas), Group Two encouraged open debate of each idea, while Group Three was on their own to conduct the session however they wished. The results were surprising. The group that allowed open debate had a wider variety plus a higher volume of ideas than the other two.
The researchers of these studies concluded that group brainstorming is a flawed and unproductive process. However, these studies focused on the what and not the how of brainstorming, so they missed some important elements. It is not whether you allow debate that matters, it is how you allow debate. It is not whether you allow free association, but how. It is not whether you work as a group, but how. Debate that focuses only on proving whether a single idea is worthy wastes time. Debate that looks at an idea from every possible angle enhances creativity. Free association that is not tied to the ultimate goal can lead nowhere, free association that ties disparate ideas together into something new and exciting is definitely time well spent. And having a group work together creatively is the best way to go, unless the chaos of being around people shuts you down; in that case it is better to be off by yourself.
The theories behind brainstorming—whichever style you prefer—are fine, it is the execution that often falls short. Take the question of debating an idea for instance; saying “We tried that once already” is not a debate. It is a negation. Negations are called such because they do not offer any new ideas, they simply shut down others’ ideas. Saying, “The last time we tried that it didn’t work, let’s talk about why” is the kind of discussion that leads to new ideas and solutions. Effective facilitation is the key to group brainstorming. It is difficult for the members of a group to police themselves; as such, they often get stuck in endless loops of argument. That is when the facilitator must say, “It’s all been said, let’s move on.” After a productive Idea Generation session has produced hundreds (or thousands) of ideas, you then move to the Incubation Step. The brain’s subconscious is capable of incredible feats, if given a chance to work. Have everyone go away and allow the ideas to percolate for a while; overnight is best (which is where the phrase “Let’s sleep on it” came from). When you return the next day, your subconsious mind will have popped with great additions to the list.
After the Incubation Step comes the Regeneration Step. Allow everyone to silently walk around the room looking at the ideas posted on the wall from the Idea Generation session. The outcome of this step illuminates the missing ingredient of those studies that suggest that working alone produces more and better ideas. The brain is rarely capable of a spontaneous original thought. New ideas are simply incremental changes of previous ideas. While the brain rarely creates original ideas, it is wonderful at connecting two dissimilar ideas into one new concept. As the group wanders the room looking at the ideas posted from the Idea Generation session, they should write down a small change or addition next to the original idea. They may also write down a new thought that developed during the Incubation Step. If given the proper attention, the Regeneration Step is not only where you can add many times more ideas to the list, but it is where you will find the most outrageous, cool, and market disruptive ideas.
Up to this point, the Innovative Idea Process can involve any number of people from a small committee to a large group. With proper facilitation, and enough scribes to write down ideas fast enough so as not to slow down the thinking of the group, you can access the creativity of everyone. I have facilitated sessions with 80-100 people with no problem. The next phase, however, requires a smaller group because now it is now time for decisions and strategies. The Analysis Phase answers the question of, “What do we do with all these ideas.”
The brain thinks best in clumps. Few people can remember 6128251823, but clump it into 612-825-1832 and it is no problem. So the first step in the Analysis Phase is the Categorization Step. Take all the ideas and put them into categories. Some ideas will have to do with marketing, some with client services, some with inner-office communication, and so on. Clumping allows you to steer toward the initiatives that resonate most with your business or your goals. Those people that are particularly analytical can even create sub-clumps if they like (go ahead and let them, they get real excited at this point).
Be careful during this step not to simply toss out the “weird” ideas. It is easy to say, “That was just a silly idea to get things rolling” but the you have to dig for gold. Historically, the most profitable ideas were also met with the most resistance when first suggested. If you throw away the ideas you don’t immediately understand, you may be tossing money in the trash. Also, throwing away the weird ideas only leaves you with the ones you immediately connect with, which is usually the average stuff. Instead, take a moment and justify the strangest idea. Find the truth buried in the suggestion and you will develop usable ideas out of even the oddest suggestions.
The next step is the Prioritize & Strategize Step. It is a fairly simple task to prioritize which goal is most important, you just have to remain balanced about short-term and long-term goals. Too many companies are so focused on immediate profits-or so worried about fixing in-your-face problems-that they forget to think about 5-7 years down the road. Strategies in this step need to take long-term goals into account as well. Don’t just think about implementation; think about how the initiative will be maintained over time. Many ideas start out with a bang only to fizzle because the only emphasis was on getting the idea on the shelf.
The final step is the Reward Step. Usually the only person rewarded for a new idea is the one who brings it home; the one who delivers it to the shelf. Indeed, there are some people who develop ground-breaking innovations in their basement laboratory, but those people are rare. Psychology dictates that all ideas are incremental changes from previously existing thoughts, so almost every new innovation is the product of many minds, whether the “inventor” is aware of it or not. The entire team must be rewarded simply for being part of the process.
The Reward Step isn’t simply to be nice to your team (which is reason enough), it is to develop the most important quality of an innovative workplace; the expectation of creativity. People produce more when they know that creative thinking is expected of them. Every employee at IBM could tell you the slogan of the company: THINK. A plaque with that single word was on everyone’s desk, a constant reminder that your job at IBM was not to simply complete a task, but to always being thinking of new approaches, innovations, and products. My father, a long time IBM employee, upon retirement got a plaque that read THNIK. Retirees, what a sense of humor. That’s it for this series on innovative thinking.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or email@example.com.