October 21, 2009, 8:22 AM — by Jennifer Ernst -- I've often heard "brainstorming" touted as a way to make an organizational culture more innovation-friendly. After all, brainstorming is practiced in organizations such as IDEO and Apple, highly regarded for their innovative cultures. No argument there: brainstorms, if well-constructed, can be a great source of new ideas.
But the problem for many companies isn't a lack of ideas. More often, it's a lack of high-quality ideas, and poor practices for supporting the transformation from idea to innovation -- i.e., the implementation. In these cases, open-ended idea generation isn't likely to lead to organizational wins. These organizations need to focus on improving the quality of ideas and the mechanisms for selecting and supporting them going forward.
Brainstorms are an interesting technique to look at, because they represent a microcosm of organizational behaviors... the behaviors that support or undermine innovation. Let's look at some concrete ways to get both quality and execution out of this standard idea-generation technique.
1. Don't call it a "brainstorm". Calling it something special makes people self-conscious and even triggers skepticism. Just tell the team you want to spend some time getting their ideas about Topic X.
2. Know what you plan to do with the outcomes. Before calling a team together, be sure you'll be able to dedicate resources (time, funding, people) to support small experiments with several of the ideas. If not, you'll just breed frustration and annoyance — and waste everyone's time, including yours.
3. Go somewhere, anywhere, that isn't your usual meeting spot. Just be sure you have a place to capture ideas where everyone can see them, and that it doesn't feel too contrived. (I tried doing a creative session on a playground once. Let's just say that one didn't work so well.) If you don't have the luxury of floor-to-ceiling whiteboards (PARC is filled with these), big pieces of foamcore are a great alternative.
4. Adopt a "Yes, and" protocol during the session, as opposed to "yeah, but" statements. Actually, everyone should try this outside the idea generation session, too.
5. Provide advance reading and questions. Many people don't like to be put on the spot, and are reluctant to speak out if they think someone else in the group knows more about the topic than they do. Pre-reading allows everyone to get up to speed and, more importantly, establishes some common points of reference.
6. Brainstorm constraints first. This one is counter to most advice on brainstorming, but it works in a lot of situations. All of us carry around unspoken assumptions about what's allowed and what's not. By getting those assumptions on the table early, you can explicitly acknowledge ones that are real and disabuse the ones you need people to put aside.
7. Develop ideas iteratively. Start with one topic, then filter the outcome. Expand around that and build on a handful of the most promising ones. To do this, you need to define criteria for filtering. Some teams are able to generate this criteria within the idea generation session. If this is completely new territory, though, I suggest having some loose criteria going in. Let your team focus on generating the real ideas.
8. Avoid "sticky idea" syndrome. This is where the person who comes up with an idea feels that they will automatically get stuck implementing it. For collaborative idea development to work, people have to feel free to express ideas without thinking they're automatically signing up for additional work.
9. Design small experiments and check back. It's unlikely you'll have 5 brilliant ideas come out of a session, but you might get 5 good discussions started among small teams. Quickly, though, you'll want to come back and review which ones should be cultivated further and which ones didn't seem to pan out (and why -- these can help with listing constraints and filters for future brainstorming sessions). Perhaps some should be combined, some abandoned, and some shelved for later; hopefully there's at least one that's worth taking a little further.
10. Embrace failure. Everyone says some variation of this but I must repeat it: Failure. is. part. of. the. process. You should stretch far enough that you have a chance to model a willingness to accept failure. Be sure, too, that everyone who participates along the way has a chance to see the results as they unfold. It's the only way to create shared learning -- just monitor yourself to be sure you're teaching (and learning) what you want along the way.
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