When managers want to involve others in creatively solving a problem, they sometimes hold a brainstorming session. While this session is planned with good intentions, it can be a waste of time if it doesn’t involve the right people.
Don’t be tempted to include an expert in the group to help guide the group or answer questions. The expert won’t benefit from the brainstorming process and could, in fact, probably work alone and come up with a solution that is 80% effective.
Brainstorming as a Tool
Where brainstorming becomes useful, however, is when it is used to mentor or to coach. A properly conducted brainstorming process provides an ideal teaching moment. In this case, the purpose of a brainstorming session isn't to arrive at the one "correct" answer. Instead, the purpose of a brainstorming session is to give employees the opportunity to practice innovation and creativity in a safe environment where they can take a risk without fear of failure.
In order to be productive, a brainstorming process should follow the following rules:
- Have an ideal number of participants in the group. A brainstorming session works best when you have a minimum of three people and a maximum of seven. Less than three makes the participants uncomfortable and hesitant to speak up. More than seven makes the group unwieldy and difficult to keep focused on the topic.
- Prepare the group for the discussion. Send a background memo to the participants at least a day before the meeting so they can begin to think. This is particularly helpful for more introverted participants who may need more time to gather their thoughts than for those who are more comfortable talking off the top of their heads. In the memo, include the reason for the session and a specific challenge question.
- Invite the right people. Bosses are not welcome. In order to create an uninhibited generation of ideas, employees need to feel they are not being judged or assessed by their supervisors. The group should include diverse participants who may bring a fresh perspective to the problem at hand. In addition to the participants, a brainstorming session should also include an idea collector who records ideas but does not participate and facilitator who guides the session and encourages participation.
- Create the right environment. In order to foster an environment of freedom and creativity, you may need to find an outside location for your meeting. However, keep the brainstorming session short, since the process of intensely creating ideas can run out of steam after 90 minutes.
The Brainstorming Process
Once the brainstorming session begins, the team leader or facilitator presents the challenge or problem and asks for solutions. Every member of the brainstorming group is required to participate, while the idea collector writes down responses where the group can see them.
It's essential that during this time, no one criticizes any solution, even when it is apparent the solution will not work as presented. An unlikely suggestion can still lead to other concepts that may eventually lead to an ideal solution.
The team leader also controls the discussion by making sure the listeners participate and the talkers listen. The greater number of solutions, the greater the chance that an effective solution will be found. A good rule of thumb is at least three solutions per participant.
Once the list is completed, the group reviews all of the ideas and, by majority vote, selects the five best solutions. Each of these solutions is discussed and strengthened until finally, another vote is cast to determine the best one. The last step in the process is to write down the solution, outline the implementation of it, and describe the barriers and requirements (people, money, time, other resources) involved.
Using brainstorming to help employees learn how to think creatively is the biggest benefit of this process and is particularly effective in teaching and motivating the new generation of employees who crave collaboration, inclusion, and problem solving but may not know how to accomplish this in today's work environment.
Paul, a "recovering employment attorney", is a Business and Executive Coach with a national clientele. He is also the author of WorkQuake, 76 ways to thrive in the Knowledge Economy, and a blogger for FastCompany.com. His writing is featured in The Business Edge, Vistage, and Industrial Distribution, to name a few. Paul can be contacted at 630-913-6555 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for “Paul’s Point of the Day,” or find out how to schedule your session with the WorkQuake Coach at www.workquake.com.