Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Brainstorming—Part II: Making it Go

Techniques that work and what to do with all those ideas you generate.

In our previous installment, “A Dozen Reasons Your Brainstorm Sessions Don’t Work,” we examined the why most of us, at one time or another, are disappointed by the results of our brainstorming. We covered everything from problem definition to ground rules and expectations to who, when and how.

In Part II, we’re going to look at some proven techniques. Interestingly, in their own way, each automatically solves many of the key brainstorming issues—as well as produces loads of ideas. Then we’ll quickly look at how you turn these ideas into incredible, creative solutions.

With a nod to the Nike, “Just Do It” tagline, brainstorming is simpler if you follow these suggestions.

Do it Fast!

Speed is very freeing. Recall from our earlier installment that judging early creates fear of failure and stifles creativity. When you work fast, you don’t have time to judge ideas as they develop. Just write them down and move on. So you keep fear of failure and negativity out of the picture long enough to get fresh thoughts on the table.

You also generate loads of ideas. That’s good because in brainstorming, more is better. You get the law of averages on your side. The more ideas, the better your chance of having a stunner in the bunch.

How fast is fast? How about 20 ideas in five minutes?

That’s a new idea every 15 seconds. Can’t be done, right? Wrong. My brainstorm teams do it again and again. In the space of an hour, with multiple small groups, they routinely develop several hundred ideas! Much to their delight and surprise, I might add.

Do it Again!

Your team has just come up with 20 or more ideas. Give them a moment to be proud of themselves. More than likely they never believed it could be done in the first place. So let them bask in the glory for a bit. Then ask them to select their two or three favorites and share why they think they’re the best. Discuss how they turned something on its ear and broke rules.

Now have them mentally “toss them out!” The whole 20. And brainstorm again. (See why stopping at the first good idea is a big problem in our first installment.) Before any complaints can begin, prod your team, “Twenty MORE ideas. Five minutes. Go, go go!”

Generally, the first round or two gets the expected solutions out of the way. The best stuff usually—but not always—comes later.

Do it Wrong!

It’s tough to come up with brilliant, breakthrough ideas and solve tough problems. The very thought is intimidating. But one thing we all know how to do is to do things wrong. To make mistakes.

Use this to your advantage. Have your brainstorm team, “Do it Wrong” and come up with awful, simply terrible, ideas. It’s fun to see who can come up with the absolute worst and watch what happens. Suddenly there’s no pressure to be brilliant and generating ideas is easy and fun. Immediately your team is loose. In a happy place. And productive!

Once you’ve gotten the worst down on paper, make a U-Turn. Have the team select favorites and turn those ideas around—into great ideas.

Do it Weird!

Pick a color or an object. Any color. Or any object. When you need a new idea, get away from anything remotely familiar and start someplace entirely new. The weirder, the better. New places allow you to make brand new connections. You have no expectations or preconceived limits on where your thoughts can take you.

For example, let’s say your group picks the color red. Have them make a list of everything red. A red rubber ball. Lipstick. Stop light. Red door. Bullseye. Fire truck and fire hydrant. A red and white striped barber pole. Raspberries and apples. Early morning airline travel on the “red eye.” Visine (speaking of red eye!). Red Rover Red Rover.

Use your “red” list to make connections with and trigger solutions to your problem. Will this work? You bet. Because the best thing about “weird,” it puts everyone off their guard. They’re in a strange new place where bold new thoughts are welcome.

Do it with a Genius!

Ask your team, “How would Albert Einstein solve this problem?” Or Marie Curie? Or Igor Stravinsky? Or Pablo Picasso? Each of these incredible minds brought a new approach to the world in a different field and by a different means. Through imagination. Through insight and perseverance. Through expressive rhythm. Through the fracture of representational rendering.

Part of the reason you and your team feel like you can’t solve the problem is that you don’t expect to have the answer. You haven’t had it before, so why should you have it now? Step outside yourself and turn to a genius for your solutions.

More helpful hints

  • Be obvious. Consider this option—especially when you’re dealing with people who have loads of expertise. First thing you do before you really begin brainstorming, invite your teams write down every solution they already know. Gets the known stuff out of everyone’s systems quickly. Then at last, you can prepare for fresh thinking.

  • PostIt! Have your teams write each idea on its own little sticky note. Use separate colors for each team, if you like. Post them on the wall or a big sheet where everyone can see them. Why separate notes for each? So you can easily combine them and build on them, and organize and categorize them later.

  • Compete. At the start, announce a little friendly competition between teams to get the adrenaline flowing. This is another reason I like brainstorming with small teams of three to five people. See which team can come up with the most ideas. The worst ideas. The weirdest ideas. The least ideas. Give awards. Dinner. Theater tickets. Give the losers an incentive, too. Like buying coffee for the winners.

  • Treat yourselves well. Bring coffee and healthy snacks. Tell folks to dress comfortably. Take shoes off. (OK, maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know your group!) Get away from the desk and get rid of the conference table. They’re too formal. Gather your chairs into small clusters, one for each group. Play music or otherwise stimulate your team’s creativity. See our earlier posts, “Want to be more creative? Be less comfortable.” and “Be more creative…do something different.” for more ideas.

  • Embrace failure. Am I saying I want your brainstorming effort to fail. No. What I want you to do is to create an environment in which it’s OK to fail at least some of the time. An environment where risk is rewarded. Think about it. All the world’s greatest talents and minds fail. Sometimes often. The best hitters in Major League Baseball fail in more than two out of three at bats. They risk swinging big and their coach wants them to swing big! The coach knows a big home run hitter is going to strike out…a lot. But when they connect, it’s out of the park. And that’s what you’re looking for isn’t it? To hit one out of the park.

"Would you like me to give you a formula for... success? It's quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You're thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn't at all... you can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that's where you'll find success. On the far side."

--Thomas J. Watson, Founder of IBM

Now that you’ve got tons of ideas. Now what?

Before you wrap up your brainstorm sessions, you might have hundreds of ideas. All in random order. It can feel like a real mess. How do you take all these “baby ideas” and nurture them into mature concepts that can stand critical scrutiny.

  • Combine and categorize. Work with your teams to separate ideas into three to five clear categories. Here’s where having each concept on an individual PostIt! really helps. If you find some of the ideas defy categorization. Don’t force it. Free-floaters are often good bridges and connectors. Combine them with other strong ideas. By looking at categories you also identify areas that were not well covered during the initial brainstorming session—or an important area that was missed entirely. Categories can also help you make a strategic link back to your objectives so you can check to see that you’re on target.

  • Pick leaders. Have your teams vote on the strongest ideas in each category. Talk about why they’re so strong. See what common threads exist among the leading ideas. And what’s different. What about the ideas that don’t come out on top? Aren’t they a waste? Absolutely not. Those ideas are part of the process and help springboard people to make new connections and more novel ideas.

  • Improve and strengthen. Brainstorming is more of a process than an event. You’re trying to do something, create something or solve something that’s never been done before. Game changing ideas are worth the investment in effort and a little more time. You haven’t failed because the first brainstorm session didn’t produce a final product. What you’ve done is set the stage for success. Take a break and plan Round 2. Use the categories, leaders and common threads to direct your next session.

  • Empower the team to finish the ideas. Too often I’ve seen the leaders of brainstorm sessions take the ideas away from the team and either develop them by themselves or to hand them to others. That’s really demoralizing to the team because it sends the message that they’re not good enough to pull the ideas through. So resist that temptation. Empower the team to grow the ideas themselves—and make them responsible for hitting the target.

Trying other things

Picasso once said, “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.” Good advice for brainstorming. If you want new solutions you’ve got to try other things. Give some of the suggestions from Brainstorming Part I and II a try and turn disappointment into amazement.

Art: Pablo Picasso, “Landscape with Bridge” 1909 from Artchive, “Portrait of Stravinsky” from the Internet Public Library, “Les Echecs” 1911 from Online Picasso Project.

Blog content: ©2009 Paul J. Hydzik. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Paul Hydzik grows brand value. As a brand marketer and award-winning creative leader, Paul has more than 15 years of experience driving business success from start-ups to blue chips. His strategic resume covers all aspects of B2B and B2C branding from go-to-market to consumer insight to identity development and all forms of marketing communication.

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