The result? Some attendees remain stone-faced throughout the day, others contribute sporadically, and a few loudly dominate the session with their pet ideas. Ideas pop up randomly - some intriguing, many preposterous - but because the session has no structure, little momentum builds around any of them. At session's end, the group trundles off with a hazy idea of what, if anything, will happen next. 'Now we can get back to real work', some whisper.
It doesn't have to be like this. By undertaking better preparation and providing structure throughout a brainstorming technique, organisations can greatly enhance their chances of generating better ideas that will be implemented.
- Know your boundaries: One reason good ideas hatched in corporate brainstorming sessions often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider or to implement. 'Think outside the box!' is an unhelpful exhortation if external circumstances or company policies create boxes that the organization truly must live within.
- Ask the right questions: Build the workshop around a series of 'right questions' that the team explores in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions. The trick is to identify questions with two characteristics. First, they should force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. Why? Because whenever you look for new ways to approach an old problem you naturally gravitate toward thinking patterns and ideas that worked in the past. Research shows that, over time, you'll come up with fewer good ideas, despite increased effort. Changing your participants' perspective will shake up their thinking. The second characteristic of a right question is that it limits the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes.
- Choose the right people: The rule here is simple: pick people who can answer the questions you’re asking. As obvious as this sounds, it’s not what happens in many traditional brainstorming sessions, where participants are often chosen with less regard for their specific knowledge than for their prominence on the org chart.
- Use subgroups: To ensure fruitful discussions, don't have participants hold one continuous, rambling discussion among the entire group for several hours. Instead, have them conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups of three to five people - no fewer, no more. Each subgroup should focus on a single question for a full 30 minutes. Why three to five people? The usual behaviour in groups of this size is to speak up, whereas the norm in a larger group is to stay quiet.
- Brief them first: After your participants arrive, but before the division into subgroups, orient them so that your expectations about what they will - and won’t - accomplish are clear. Each subgroup will thoughtfully consider and discuss a single question for a half hour. No other idea from any source - no matter how good - should be mentioned during a subgroup’s individual session. Tell participants that if anyone thinks of a 'silver bullet' solution that's outside the scope of discussion, they should write it down and share it later.
Also, whenever possible, share 'signpost examples' before the start of each session - real questions previous groups used, along with success stories, to motivate participants and show them how a question-based approach can help.
- Follow up quickly: Decisions and other follow-up activities should be quick and thorough. Of course, we’re not suggesting that uninformed or insufficiently researched conclusions should be reached about ideas dreamed up only hours earlier. But the odds that concrete action will result from an idea generation exercise tend to decline quickly as time passes and momentum fades.