Brainstorming: 16 Ground Rules

Make brainstorming sessions efficient, worthwhile, and effective.

by Rich Schiesser - The development of a robust process requires several activities that are best facilitated with brainstorming sessions. These sessions can prove to be invaluable in gathering optimal designs, consensus of opinion, and all-important buy-in from diverse groups. But if they aren't managed properly, they can also be time-consuming, expensive, and lacking in results. Over the years I have accumulated a list of helpful ground rules to make brainstorming sessions efficient, worthwhile, and effective:

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1. Agree on the clear objective(s) of the brainstorming - Ensure everyone agrees on and understands the overall objectives of the session.

2. Stay focused on the objective(s) - It is easy to get side-tracked in a brainstorming session, especially when highly knowledgeable and opinionated individuals are involved. Keep the group focused on the overall objectives at all times.

3. Treat everyone as equals - Play no favorites. Use a round-robin technique of asking every person for their input; if they have none, quickly acknowledge them and move on to the next person. When input is offered, do not question it initially. That can come later. Just record the input and spend no more than a few seconds at this point with any individual.

4. Listen respectfully to each person's input - Everyone's input is important. Treat it as such.

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5. Participate honestly and candidly - Encourage candor and honesty. Solving problems and developing processes often involve discussions about lessons learned from what has gone wrong in the past. Encourage openness without being judgmental.

6. Maintain confidentiality when appropriate - If sensitive or personnel issues arise, ensure appropriate levels of confidentially are maintained.

7. Keep an open mind; suspend personal agendas - Do not let an individual's personal bias shut down possible solutions or proposals. Encourage new ideas and creative ideas.

8. Ask anything — there are no dumb questions - Encourage all sorts of questions and comments. Sometimes a seemingly irrelevant remark may lead to something truly insightful.

9. Question anything you don't understand - Do not assume everyone understands something that you do not. Clarification and understanding are critical to an effective session.

10. Speak only one voice at a time; no side conversations - Limit conversations to one at a time. Multiple conversations can result in something significant being missed.

11. Ensure everything relevant gets written down - Avoid the temptation to record only what you personally believe is important. Except for the truly trivial, record everything.

12. If prioritizing, agree upon specific technique - An effective way to prioritize lists of brainstormed items is the use of the nominal group technique.

13. If attempting consensus, agree upon voting method - Some sessions may involve voting to reach consensus. If this is the case, agree on the voting method - such as a simple majority or unanimity - ahead of time.

14. Start and end on time - Nothing kills interest in a brainstorming session faster than starting it late and having it go over time. Pay attention to the clock, and more attention will be paid to the session.

15. Critique the brainstorming session for improvements - At the conclusion of each brainstorming session, spend a few minutes discussing how future sessions may be improved upon.

16. Treat these as guidelines, not rules; customize as needed - Although the title suggests that these are hard and fast rules, they are really intended as guidelines. They should be modified whenever the situation warrants it for additional effectiveness and efficiency.

Rich Schiesser is the author of the 2nd Ed. of 'IT Systems Management', published by Prentice Hall Professional, January 2010, ISBN 0137025068, Copyright 2010 Pearson Education, Inc. For a complete Table of Contents please visit: www.informit.com/title/0137025068

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