Eight Suggestions For Great Brainstorming/Ideation

Those of you who read this blog will know of the recent online debate I had with author Ashley Merryman. Essentially, I was not letting her get away with dismissing brainstorming. Ashley co-wrote a recent Newsweek article titled Forget Brainstorming.” While I liked the article generally, I hated the title, and disagree and dispute the conclusions she’d drawn from a subset of the research on brainstorming. The debate also highlighted the problem with the term itself; brainstorming can be either an unstructured bull crap session, or a highly structured event, and depending on which one you’re talking about, they are either a waste of time, or a smart thing to do.

The exchange got me thinking, again, about when “brainstorming” works and when it doesn’t.  For the record, let me define what I mean by brainstorming:  I mean a session with a goal of generating a wealth of ideas to address a specific challenge, using a wide variety of tools/techniques, and conducted by a professional facilitator. In this post, I’m going to call that animal “Ideation.”  The truth is brainstorming/ideation efforts often fail, even well organized, well intentioned, structured ones. This usually happens because the session is set up for failure. It also happens because it is simply difficult to innovate. I’ve decided to re-write and post an article I wrote a few years ago on how to avoid the typical pitfalls for a structured brainstorm/ideation session.  Let me get right to it:

First Suggestion: Don’t Facilitate the Ideation Session Yourself, Get Professional Help

For a variety of reasons, the most common being cost-control, many organizations decide to facilitate their own sessions.  This is not a good idea.  It is amazingly hard for the already involved to stay out of content.  A facilitator’s first job is to be neutral and to focus on process.  If your team has a facilitator on staff, and they are not on the project team, they can be ideal facilitators for a session.  The point is you need an empowered and neutral party.

The manager of a group, who is intimately involved with content, is a risky choice.  Team managers have a difficult time managing process and time, while resisting the urge to contribute ideas.  They may subtly edit the ideas and thoughts of others.  People notice, and the flow of ideas, particularly the wild out-of-the box ideas, shuts down.

Hire a professional ideation facilitator that specializes in new product ideation.  Spend the money, get someone experienced, and check references.

Second Suggestion — Allow Time for Incubation Before the Ideation Session

Unfortunately ideation sessions are often the result of a corporate emergency.  You’ve been there — the competition comes up with an innovation that could put you out of business or you need some sales promotion ideas by the end of next week to be in time for the holiday season.   It’s some kind of bad news that gets everybody motivated.  The ideation session you’ve been putting off for months suddenly becomes a top priority with management support.  That’s the good news.  The trigger is immediately pulled – bam – let’s do the session.  Now!

Everybody is flown in from the far corners of the globe overnight, and put into a hotel conference room.  Everyone works hard at the session but even after an entire day generating ideas you still don’t have anything special, the ideas are flat and unexciting.

There’s a reason they are unexciting.  Basically they haven’t had enough time to emerge.

You need to allow time for incubation of the challenge.  Give participants notice of what’s going to happen in advance and give them (fun) tasks that will get them thinking, a lot, about the challenge.  Send any research out in advance (don’t dump it all on them when they get to the session!).  A homework assignment may include a shopping trip, the observation of certain products in use, and/or internet desk research.  These activities will give the brain a chance to ruminate and make new combinations.

One good way to do get started earlier and stretch out the length of time of the session is to use online tools before and after the in-person session.  There are excellent web based tools, some generic like the wiki tools out there, and some more specific like WebIQ, Imaginatik, or Brightidea.com which can be tailored for a very specific ideation session data collection need.

Third Suggestion: Have a Very Clear and Realistic Objective

It’s amazing how often you hear the desire for “breakthrough innovation.”  Whatever happened to good old-fashioned improvement?  Innovation — big leap ideas — seems to be what everyone desires, and many ideation sessions are planned with this thought in mind.  A big leap objective, however, often leads to two disappointing outcomes.  One is that the ideas generated are too general or ambitious to be realistically implemented – at least in a short timeframe.  Managers might “chicken out.”  And two, a more specific outcome, which might be more appropriate, is not achieved.

If you’re going to pursue a goal of “breakthrough innovation” – be prepared.   Managers see a wall full of wacky, far out, impractical, expensive, and illegal solutions – and they start feeling a bit like jumping out the window.  Brace yourself — that’s exactly the kind of thinking you want when you are trying for breakthrough ideas.  Breakthrough ideas are usually ideas outside the current paradigm; they could change the business drastically.  It might be a new distribution channel, it might mean a spin off company, it might mean a new factory to produce a radically different product.  These things take time and big money to implement.  Managers typically have a shorter-term focus.  Many ideation sessions take a u-turn back towards the immediately practical about half way through the session.  Managers see the wild ideas and realize they are going to walk away with a lot of blue-sky ideas and nothing they can use right away, so they make the shift.  A lot of valuable time is wasted, and you get about half of what you are looking for.

So, while it’s very obvious, you have to know what you want.  It’s totally fine to devote an ideation session to practical ideas for improvement, in fact your odds for success are much higher than a session dedicated to breakthrough innovation.  In-the-box thinking is exactly what you want sometimes.  Don’t frame a session with an “anything goes” opening and change horse’s midstream.  If you are seeking breakthrough innovation you’ll want to adjust the tools and techniques used and gear them to deep problem exploration, cross-domain perspectives, and long term horizons.  In short, out-of-the box thinking.  Clearly define your challenge and direct your ideation towards that specific need.   Finally, remember that the wacky ideas an out-of-the-box session generates are just a beginning.  Concepts need to be developed in a more practical way as an ending step, or post-session step, to bring ideas into more do-able form.  Consider using the new web-based tools for immediate consumer testing.

Suggestion Four:  Ideate Frequently, Get Ideation Training, Use Trained Brains

Getting together the whole team is difficult in a decentralized organization; it’s expensive and logistically challenging.  When the effort is made to pull a group together for a big session, expectations rise.  The session is viewed as the time when the magic bullet will be discovered.  Let’s look at your ideation team.  Unless you are going out-of-house (and that is an option worth considering) your ideators are people who spend most of their time in active and complex management jobs.  These jobs require constant critical-analytical thinking — and rarely free flowing imaginative thinking.  So, they fly in for the session and spend two solid days idea generating.  It’s not at all what they are used to doing, it’s not what they are trained for, and they try, but they tend to mental burnout very quickly.

Why wait to begin ideation until everybody is in one physical place?  Why wait at all, you should be generating, and managing, ideas all the time.  With email, web, and database technologies people could be contributing ideas wherever they are, and whenever the spirit moves them.  Virtual sessions can be coordinated by a facilitator for highly focused efforts.  If you want to have skilled idea generators on your team they must practice the skill.  Practice frequently!  Then when the marathon session happens – your team is conditioned to handle it.  Train those brains!  Finally, do bring in outsiders who have creative thinking/brainstorming training AND fresh perspectives and knowledge bases – they inspire teams, and, contribute great ideas.

Suggestion Five: Invite the “Trouble Makers”

Developing the invitation list for an ideation session is a real challenge.  You want your best people there, your best thinkers.  You review the list of candidates.  You cross folks off the list who have a history of, well, being a pain in the rear.

You need creative thinking diversity to get a broader range of ideas.  Creative style has been well- defined by researcher Michael Kirton with his “adaptor/innovator” scale (seewww.kaicentre.com ).  The idea is that everyone on the scale is creative, but they are creative in different ways.  Kirton has learned that it’s easiest to communicate with people of your own thinking style – it requires less negotiation.  The father apart on the scale people are, the more they are viewed as “trouble makers.”  So, by not inviting the trouble makers you are cutting out a lot of creative thinking diversity.  Diversity you need!

Make sure you invite a diverse team that includes both innovative (“different”)  and adaptive (“better”) thinkers.  The cross-pollination of different thinking styles generates the most creative solutions.  The adaptors can help make the ideas of high innovators workable.  The innovators can expand on small improvement ideas and add real value.  And because you’ve hired a professional facilitator any conflicts that arise are handled by a neutral party.

Suggestion Six: Know the Consumers Needs and Get Them Involved

A vague or deliberately generalized objective in an ideation session can lead to a really wide range of ideas being generated.  You’ll get ideas for all areas of the business.  This happens when it isn’t clear just what problem you are trying to solve, or what opportunity or need you are trying to exploit.  This is not necessarily bad, sometimes you want a “free for all” kind of session to gather ideas for various business goals, but this is the exception not the rule.

When you are trying to reach a specific consumer market (or type of business in B to B) however, it makes a lot of sense to get into the consumers “head” – intimately.  The traditional way to do this is — you guessed it — death by PowerPoint!  The marketing manager may drone on, “Here are the findings from our focus groups” as he relays how one woman feels about aging, or how tweens use cell phones.   Trust me, this is not how to get people into ideation.  Yes, they need to know the data, but it should have been read and digested a week before they got to the session (see the incubation suggestion).

Consider different ways to include the consumers thinking.  Perhaps invite one or more to the ideation session itself – hire their thinking.  Consider having the ideation team conduct their own interviews of the target.  Consider having the team do observational research. Then, explore the challenge in some artistic way, through music, dance, or drawing.  This begins the session with an imaginative experience that invokes the emotion, and the spirit of the consumer.  If this sounds too airy-fairy just know that by avoiding this kind of exploration you are avoiding the kind of understanding that leads to breakthroughs.

Suggestion Seven: Make Sure You Have Some Fun

It’s 2:00 PM on the first day of a two day session.  The morning went okay, but you know you are not “there yet.”  The ideas are only fair and you’ve had to make some adjustments to your objectives.  Some people arrived late due to bad weather in Chicago and now you’re behind schedule.  The facilitator gets everybody in a circle and hands out “angel cards.”  You think it’s absurd but you go along.  Then she (or he) starts tossing about an imaginary ball – you pull her aside and tell her to get on with the show and to cut all the energizers for the rest of the day in order to get back on schedule.  She agrees reluctantly.  You feel better but an hour later everybody looks like the walking dead and the idea flow has slowed to dribs and drabs.  For the rest of the day people are walking out, taking their own breaks, getting a bit snarky, talking on cell phones, etc. They are emotionally uninvolved.  By the time they leave the group looks like the cast of the Thriller video.  It’s not pretty, and results have suffered.

Resist the urge to cut these activities.  In fact, add more.  These games and energizers are exactly what the brain needs to get into, and stay in, imaginative mode.  According to Pierce J. Howard, author of The Owner’s Manual For The Brain, physical exercise is highly effective in improving the speed of recall, and much research points to an effect on the quality of mental function and the amount of recall.  It releases endorphins, the neurotransmitters that relax us into a state of cortical alertness.  Humor works as well.  Tests of problem-solving ability yield better results when they are preceded by laughter.

Many of the games/exercises used for energizing were originally designed for the theater.  The intent is to bring the actor into the present moment, enabling him or her to respond to stimulus authentically.  These exercises are time tested and they work well to bring people’s minds into the room – instead of cranking away on other problems and challenges in their lives.  Once a state of “presence” is achieved you will have more effective ideation.  This state is hard to maintain, however, and that’s why about once an hour you need to refresh.  You want people to play with ideas, and these games help establish the environment of playfulness that allows those magic ideas to pop up and be heard by the conscious mind.  If you want the magic bullet, play with the magic ball.

Suggestion Eight: Don’t Allow the Data to Gather Dust Afterwards, Digitize, Distribute, and Get Into Idea Management

A month after the session the business crisis that triggered the ideation has passed.  You were able to use a few of the ideas to triage the problem, and that’s been “good enough” – maybe even quite successful.  It’s easy to rationalize, well, we got what we wanted from the session – we don’t need to explore or expand upon the “other ideas” generated that day.  You think that someday you should explore the list of unused ideas – but you never do.

Somebody should take ownership of all the ideas.  That person should distribute a report as soon as possible.  The data should always be easily accessed (leverage that corporate Intranet!)  The longer the data gathers dust the less likely it will ever be used.  Keep in mind that buried in that data could be the next idea that fuels the growth of your company.  That data is a strategic asset and should be treated as such.  Ideas that seemed silly or impractical at first are often the best ideas, but your brain and/or the corporate culture isn’t quite ready to accept it the first time it’s articulated.  Out of the box ideas are sometimes so jarring that your immediate reaction is “no way.”  On further reflection you might see a way.

Digitize the data.  Get it entered into documents and databases. Consider and buy an Idea Management System. Once the data is “digitized” distribute it to the ideation team so they can see the fruits of their labors.  Invite them to “build” and continue the process.  Don’t forget to scan drawings and other ideation output that is not text based.  Use digital cameras, video, and audio tape during the session to capture rich discussions and debriefs.  You’ve spent the money to conduct the session, by all means preserve the product!  And don’t forget to follow up six months from now!

Ideation is a powerful technique for innovation.  Don’t learn the hard way, adopt my eight suggestions and you’ll have a formula to increase your odds for success.

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    • “Consider having the ideation team conduct their own interviews of the target.” Dude, whaaaa…?

      Just like you recommend hiring a professional facilitator, we recommend hiring a professional qualitative research consultant to handle the interviews and/or direct the effort with client involvement.

      Clients lack training in qualitative research techniques; they often ask poor questions laden with assumptions and technical jargon. One client recently asked me to ask my group “what their deeper perceptions were about the sub-benefits of the attributes.” Ummm … okey dokey.

      Best, JH

      • Fair point John. Professional interviewing can make a big difference.

        This article was originally written for a qualitative magazine, so, I sort of assumed they would know this.
        The “Ideation team” is often made up of researchers.

        However, while I agree with your point, I’d also say that informal conversations, even interviews, with customers/consumers/clients are not always a bad thing, even when done by amateurs. Too much insulation from the market is one reason why many marketers don’t have such great product development ideas. They are trying to invent in a vacuum. Recall also that not every company can afford a professional qualitative study. Small business people have to wear a lot of hats, and “researcher” is one of them. Thanks for your comment, hope all is well.

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