When was the last time you and your team came up with a really great idea? For most entrepreneurs, fresh ideas are the lifeblood of their small business. But human beings can all too easily get stuck in thought patterns that fail to generate a new perspective or “out-of-the-box” solution to a pressing challenge. This is where some well-organized and carefully planned brainstorming sessions can produce unexpectedly valuable results.
“Well-organized”? “Carefully planned”? These phrases don’t seem to go along with the common conception of brainstorming, but in fact companies get more out of brainstorming activities that follow a few select guidelines than ones where everyone simply hangs out. Here are tips for structuring your next session, so people can make better use of their imaginations.
Ask the right question. While the ideas that come from a brainstorming session are freewheeling and all over the map, the questions that prompt those ideas shouldn’t be. Start with a basic question that addresses some ongoing concern.
For example, ask participants to identify what part of your buying process causes the most hassle for your clients. If there’s general agreement as to the answer, now is the time to ask, “What can we do to change the way clients purchase our product?” and invite ideas on how to address the problem. Another commonly asked question might be, “What ways could clients use our product that we’ve never considered before?” This can help identify new ways to market your product and spur ideas about how to upgrade or refine your offering.
No criticisms allowed. In a useful brainstorming session, participants are comfortable sharing outlandish, even silly notions. Difficulties occur when others in the group immediately critique those notions or point out how impractical they are. Such criticisms have no place here. The brainstorming session is explicitly designed to gather as many ideas as possible. Quantity is preferable to quality in these group sessions.
Invite only the right people. It’s not necessary to include everyone on the team in the brainstorming session (unless you feel each team member has a uniquely creative perspective to offer). It’s best to go with individuals who can answer the questions you’ve asked, especially those who work on the front-lines and can bring the customer’s point of view into the discussion.
Also, watch out for so-called “idea crushers.” These are people who might be perfectly suitable for a brainstorming session, but, as noted by Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne, authors of Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas, who “intentionally or not, prevent others from suggesting good ideas.” Idea crushers come in three varieties, the authors say: bosses, “big mouths,” and subject matter experts. Bosses can inhibit people from freely speaking up. Big mouths intimidate others and suck up all the oxygen in a room. Subject matter experts are presumed to have the last word on a particular issue, thus also inhibiting other participants from offering different ideas.
Evaluate ideas later. Brainstorming sessions derive the most value from a sort of momentum that builds up from continual input. One crazy idea sparks another, which in turn gets another participant thinking in a new way. This is when you know creativity is flowing, which makes it critically important not to halt the process and single out any particular idea for evaluation. There’s time later for that stage in the process.
Before scheduling your next brainstorming session, consider the questions you want answered and the people you want involved. Let participants know from the outset that everyone’s input is welcome (and valued) and that – beyond a general rule prohibiting criticism – anything goes. In an atmosphere where free-thinking is encouraged and there are no “bad” ideas, your gifted team members may come up with the great next new thing that propels dramatic growth for your business.
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