Build a Better Brainstorm
One of my favorite brainstorming sessions was when I was working at Novartis. The challenge for our global team was to make sure that we delivered packaging and positioning for the remediated Theraflu products so that the markets had the best opportunity for a successful relaunch. I was working with my friend and counterpart to develop a concept for a subset of the US product line. One day, we sat in her office trying to figure out the naming approach. It was us, a white board, and a few Expo markers. We rattled off however many names we could shout out. Then we would riff on a few of the names, write some more down, cross some off. (Yes, there aren’t supposed to be “bad” ideas in a brainstorm, but let’s be honest, there are. It’s totally ok to laugh at a few and delete them). 90 enjoyable minutes later, we had a reasonably long list from which to pick. We chose an option to drop into the concept. The idea ended up being successful, and ExpressMax was born.
Given what brainstorming sessions are supposed to be like, ours hardly qualified. On the other hand, it worked. As my friend and I recently reminisced about this “brainstorming meeting,” we realized that the simplicity of our brainstorming is part of what worked. We spent our time focused on getting a big list of ideas, and then used those ideas to come up with more ideas. Plus, since we trusted each other and it was just the two of us, we were both able to contribute and build out the list. It was simple and it met our goal of getting us a lot of options from which to choose. Because we had a broad range, we were able to see a "good” idea among the possibilities.
We’ve all been in the large group work sessions where there are toys on the table, paper on the walls, and candy in bowls. The value of doing brainstorming in larger groups is that with different perspectives, different ideas can be generated. The challenge, however, can be that not all of the participants are able to get their ideas out or the group ends up anchoring in a territory simply because that’s where the group starts the brainstorm. If you think about the objective of a brainstorm, it’s really to get as many different ideas as possible. In the end, you only really need one successful idea, but in order to get there, you want a bunch of options from which to pick. Unfortunately, there are many larger group sessions that end up with a list that’s really more of just more of the same. At some point, do the math. That many people times their daily or hourly salaries, only to get more of the same is a bad ROI.
Generating new ideas is critical for businesses. So what can you do if typical brainstorms aren’t getting you what you need?
One of the techniques that I’ve seen be the most successful is Brainwriting. I was introduced to this concept during my AltMBA program, and I’ve seen it work consistently since then. Basically, every participant does some homework and brainstorming in advance. Then, during the in-person session, the ideas are shared with individuals (but not discussed!), who then use that list to build even more ideas. You can do this in as many rounds as you want, but the goal is to get people to build from a variety of starting point lists to generate lots of new ideas. It’s relatively fast and it’s simple. It also helps to make sure that the large group doesn’t anchor in just one place or let the loud voices drown out the shyer voices in the room. Most importantly, it works for getting to the goal of a long list of possible ideas.
Chances are that you’ll do brainstorming with a bigger group than 2-3 people. Many times, there are additional benefits to having a broader team of brainstorm participants beyond just a longer list. It can better engage team members, gets early buy-in, or can build team partnerships. In larger groups, though, it’s critical to find methods that enable generating lots of new and different ideas. Brainwriting is one of the best options I’ve found to keep people going. There are a variety of online tools and procedures for brainwriting available now, though candidly, a Google sheet can serve the same purpose if you’re trying to keep it simple or low-cost. Really, the goal is to shift away from doing the same session that’s always been done and generate new ideas.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what method you use—laughter and Expo markers with a friend or Brainwriting, or another method entirely. Getting to a large range of options that you can test, experiment with, build upon, etc. is what’s needed. Keep it simple and enjoy it.
If you want a more detailed outline of the Brainwriting process, here’s the original article that I read about it.
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