Discovery Method: Brainstorming

Anyone who knows me knows that the activities and interests of my young child often dominate conversation in our household. Growing up one of her favorite Disney shows was the Imagination Movers. You might ask yourself why a “30-something” year-old would admit to watching a kitschy, musical TV series for pre-school and elementary age children (let alone admit in on a corporate blog)? No, I was not held hostage by a group of wild four year-olds! Rather, I enjoy the positive creativity of the show. I also have a soft spot for musical talent and the actors are a real-life band by the same name from New Orleans. Plus, you have to somewhat admire a group of professionals willing to look completely ridiculous on national television all in the name of kid’s entertainment and education.

The show’s characters often launch into my favorite song, “Brainstorming!”, when they are faced with a tough problem without an obvious solution. Sound familiar? Turns out those sticky challenges aren’t just kid’s play…

As consultants, we are often brought in to solve a problem that falls outside of an organization’s domain knowledge or capabilities. Other times we are asked to simply facilitate the elicitation and analysis of a solution that is germinating in the business, but has not been fully defined or fulfilled. Or worse yet, an organization has spent countless hours beating themselves up repeatedly and unsuccessfully trying to solve a particularly nasty problem. Regardless of the reason for our involvement, it is critical to apply the appropriate techniques to foster creative thinking.

One such technique is brainstorming. No, I don’t mean the IBM commercial where two dozen employees lay around a room in the dark to “ideate”. I mean active brainstorming where energetic and engaging dialog should occur, but never confrontation or judgment.

In the 1953 book Applied Imagination, author and originator of brainstorming Alex Osborn defines four general rules for brainstorming that still apply today (Wikipedia):

  1. Focus on Quantity
  2. Withhold Criticism
  3. Welcome Unusual Ideas
  4. Combine and Improve Ideas
However, even with these four rules you can still go astray if you don’t follow a few more principles in your delivery such as:
  • Ensure the problem is clearly understood at the start
  • Define reasonable boundaries for the session (i.e. don’t propose world peace)
  • Prep participants with a Brainstorming 101 so they know what to expect and how to behave
  • Come prepared with leading questions
  • Invite a reasonable group size (8 – 10 people) of select individuals
  • Choose a qualified facilitator to ensure that you don’t run afoul of common challenges such as allowing a few individuals to dominate conversation or permitting unchecked criticism
  • Keep an open mind

As example, George Webster, of CNN, recently wrote an article “Six tips for better brainstorming” that covers several of these points and also provides references to other helpful material.

Lastly, decide prior to your session how the brainstorming session will be run. As with any technique, there are various approaches to delivery including structured and unstructured methods. One of the most common is nominal group technique, but a quick search of Bing will surface a wealth of educational material to help you find an approach that suites your facilitation style and the organizational culture. I would also recommend The Memory Jogger II, which has a summary on brainstorming and also serves as a handy pocket guide for many other continuous improvement techniques common to disciplines such as Six Sigma and Lean.

So, as you consider your next problem solving opportunity, try a little brainstorming. As the Imagination Movers say:

We need good ideas
And we need them now
So put your heads together
And we’ll write them down

There’s no bad ideas
When you’re brainstorming
I count on you
You can count on me

To make our ideas a reality
There’s no bad ideas
When you’re brainstorming

Brainstorming here and
Brainstorming there
Brainstorming upside down
Or sitting in your easy chair
(Sitting in your easy chair)

Reach high
Think big
Work hard
Have fun
 

Songwriters: Richard Edward Collins, Scott Kimball Durbin, David M Poche, Scott Smith (a.k.a. Imagination Movers)

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