two coworkers in a brainstorming meeting
From asking a lot of questions to evaluating feasibility, there are several methods to consider implementing to your business brainstorming strategy. — Getty Images/Marco VDM

Successful, creative brainstorming involves—get this—methodical planning and a stepwise process. Otherwise it is often a waste of time, said Travis Howell, PhD, an assistant professor of strategy at the University of California, Irvine’s business school. “But sometimes it can be just what you need to get the juices flowing and see things in a different way,” he said. Here’s how to leverage limited resources to brainstorm new opportunities or solve problems.

Routinely seek varied viewpoints

Your employees can and should be a tremendous source of new ideas, and not just now and then. Even though they have “day jobs,” it’s your job to create a culture of innovation in which brainstorming is routine, with periodic, organized sessions to ensure an ongoing effort.

Customers and suppliers can be helpful sources of solutions and fresh ideas, too. For the smallest family-owned businesses, family members and friends can be a useful resource, even if they’re not on the clock. Finally, load up on diversity to better represent the many functions within your company, as well as the many needs and viewpoints of your clients or customers—or those you’d like to garner. After all, the very notion of brainstorming is to generate ideas you might not come up with on your own.

“Encourage a diverse and inclusive group of people in the team to meet regularly to discuss what are the assets that are most valuable in the company and how they might be leveraged to create new ideas and products,” said venture capitalist Rebeca Hwang, a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and leader of the Global Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship.

‘Framestorm’ first

When brainstorming sessions fizzle, the fault often lies in the planning and the process, not with the participants. The solution: Spend more time pondering the problem than the solution, so that you truly understand it and don’t end up solving the wrong problem, said Bart Barthelemy, founding director of the Wright Brothers Institute and author of the new guidebook, "Collaborative Innovation." Such plodding patience can be hard.

“Most of us are too quick to solve a problem, and we also don’t want to spend the time to learn more and widen our perspectives,” Barthelemy told CO—.

Hwang suggests “framestorming” first. Devote a session to defining the problem, challenge or desire that a brainstorming session will address. “Everybody can have good ideas, as long as the problem is well defined,” she said.

Most of us are too quick to solve a problem, and we also don’t want to spend the time to learn more and widen our perspectives.

Bart Barthelemy, founding director, Wright Brothers Institute

Ask a lot of questions

A proven way to frame a brainstorm is to gather employees with varied backgrounds for a “question burst.” Present a problem or opportunity briefly—in, say, two minutes or less—and ask them to ask whatever questions come to mind, all in four minutes or so, with a goal of generating around 15 questions.

“Underlying the approach is a broader recognition that fresh questions often beget novel—even transformative—insights,” writes Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center. Gregersen argues that questions matter more than answers, and innovation stems from tapping into our childhood sense of wonder.

Encourage questions to be open-ended, short and simple, Gregersen advises. Write them all down. It can be difficult to resist human nature to jump to solutions, but it’s vital to forbid any talk of solutions. And don’t allow any preamble or justifications to the questions, nor any attempts to answer them.

After the questions burst, the session leader can then ponder the list to pick out the questions that best help frame the problem for the follow-on solutions brainstorm.

Set guardrails

No matter how you brainstorm solutions—with two people or dozens, in a real room or remotely, the sessions need guardrails. “The process matters when brainstorming, and it can often be effective to set some ground rules,” Howell told CO—. He suggests adhering to these seven rules, developed by online learning company IDEO U:

  • Defer judgment: Let ideas flow.
  • Encourage wild ideas: The outrageous might just be brilliant.
  • Build on the ideas of others: Encourage “and” rather than “but.”
  • Stay focused on the topic: Stick to your framestorm.
  • Allow only one conversation at a time: Draw out shy participants and don’t let loudmouths interrupt.
  • Be visual: Use colorful markers on a real or virtual white board.
  • Go for quantity: A 60-minute session should generate 100 ideas.

“Being disciplined in adhering to these rules can set the stage for a successful brainstorming session, in which teams push past obvious solutions to get to new and innovative ideas,” Howell said.

Evaluate feasibility

After a brainstorm session, gather a smaller group of people to vet the ideas for potential and feasibility given your budget and other resources. Ideally, this will include a range of perspectives, perhaps a mix of operators, managers and customers, Hwang told CO—. Sure, some of the ideas will be downright crazy or undoable. That’s a good thing.

“It's only after you discarded the first few hundred ideas that the good ones show up,” Hwang said.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published February 11, 2021