ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — December 2003

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In the Spotlight
Matthew May
Troubled or Troublesome
Moving the Elephant
Elephant Problems and Hay Solutions


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December 2003 News For A Change — Home Page

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New Ways to Use an Old Tool—Brainstorming

The Traditional Process
Brainstorming is one of the most frequently used methods for generating a lot of ideas rapidly. The process of brainstorming begins by identifying a specific topic for consideration— usually a problem, opportunity, or area of interest.

The people participating in the brainstorming session often are asked to observe guidelines, such as those listed below, as they come up with ideas:

  • Do not evaluate brainstormed ideas during the session—either verbally or nonverbally.
  • Propose ideas that seem wild or even ridiculous.
  • Focus on the quantity of ideas gathered, not quality.
  • Build on others’ suggestions, expanding them or moving them in a different direction.

All of these behavioral norms are designed to encourage a free flow of ideas without fear of ridicule or dismissal. They are based on proven methods of respectful idea generation, but do they really work?

On the surface, most people would say they do, but that may be a perception based on the wide acceptance of these ground rules, rather than actual brainstorming experiences or evaluation of the outputs of the process. If viewed a bit more critically, it seems that many brainstorming sessions really don’t bring out breakthrough solutions; they just give people a chance to express themselves or “let off steam.” Let’s take a look at some of the issues associated with the traditional brainstorming process.

The “no evaluation” rule
Clearly, people’s desire to brainstorm ideas will be inhibited if others immediately debate or challenge suggestions. Asking participants to withhold judgment seems like a logical preventive approach, but this guideline presumes that silence is equivalent to a lack of evaluation. This is far from true—particularly when you consider that the brain works much faster than the mouth! Even if the evaluations aren’t spoken right away, thoughts on the ideas being presented are processed within 20 to 30 milliseconds of being heard, and everybody in the group knows that’s the way it really works!

In fact, evaluating the ideas as they’re presented comes naturally to most of us. Telling us to hold back creates an unnatural constraint on our thinking, which may undermine our ability to be creative.

Being wild and crazy
Thinking “out of the box” is an obviously good approach for generating new ideas, but it can be a scary situation for some people. Long after the brainstorming session is over, you may be remembered for the one truly oddball idea you shared. In some cases, those ideas attach themselves to you and your reputation permanently, taking on a life all their own. Why would anyone want to risk that?

The more the merrier
For most groups, the step immediately following brainstorming involves organizing, consolidating, and eliminating ideas. It can be quite amazing to watch groups—often at the direction of their facilitators—combine ideas that have only a minuscule connection. This stage of the process seems to bring out an incredible urge to whittle the list down to a manageable number, and those wild ideas that you were encouraged to generate seem to be the first ones eliminated by most groups. If that’s the way your group operates, why would you want to spend time suggesting ideas that will
disappear almost immediately?

More Effective Approaches
One of the primary purposes of brainstorming is to generate new ideas, not retread the “tried and true” ideas—the ones that already have been proven ineffective. Yet our innate tendency to judge other people’s ideas based on our own perceptions and experiences, along with our need to avoid appearing foolish in front of associates, can undermine our ability to venture into new territory. Does this mean that the typical brainstorming guidelines should be abandoned in favor of disrespectful free-for-alls? Of course not!

A few process changes can turn a traditional brainstorming session into a collaboration session that generates workable solutions that move beyond previous boundaries. If you can find ways to incorporate the following three elements into your process, you can expect significantly better results:

Change the participants’ perspective.
Instead of having the participants come up with ideas that reflect their experiences and perspectives, “push” their minds in a new direction. Ask them to brainstorm from some other perspective, such as coming up with ideas that would represent another department or organization’s views (this is called role playing). This approach is sure to generate different ideas that are based on participants’ expanded thinking.

Focus your process on the last ground rule.
The last of the common behavioral guidelines, “Build on others’ suggestions, expanding them or moving them in a different direction,” can become the foundation of a team-based approach to finding new solutions.

Don’t consolidate or eliminate any of the ideas.
Set aside the belief that your group can only work on the few best ideas. Our brains are capable of far more than most of us realize or give them the opportunity to try. Truly creative approaches often don’t come out of the original brainstorming but are the result of combining and “playing with” those ideas and generating higher-order solutions.

Here is one alternative process that can be used to foster idea generation without the previously mentioned pitfalls.

  1. Ask each participant to propose one idea—the one he/she feels is the best option. If a member’s idea gets mentioned before he/she expresses it, two choices are available: pass or pre-sent his/her second best option.
  2. Conduct a subsidiary brainstorming session, focusing on one of the proposed ideas at a time. Instead of evaluating whether the idea has merit, brainstorm ways that it could be put to use. In other words, assume it is viable and brainstorm how to make it succeed. This approach forces every participant to tap into his/her creativity to come up with ways to implement ideas that he/she normally would dismiss. Repeat the process until all the original ideas are flushed out.
  3. Review the suggestions and combine those that are identical, not similar. Unless the originators agree that their ideas are identical, the ideas should be retained. The output list from this step should be far longer than the one that comes from traditional consolidation analysis.
  4. Create a comprehensive view of all the ideas. The goal here is to see how all the ideas could be made to work together effectively. An affinity diagram, tree diagram, concept map, or similar tool can be used to arrange all the ideas in a way that makes them easier to see. This diagram may be fairly complex depending on the number of ideas that were brainstormed.
  5. Determine if there are stand-alone solutions within the comprehensive view, and if there are, narrow the field. In many cases, all the brainstormed ideas actually will fit together into one overall plan. In other cases, there may be two or more emergent approaches in the comprehensive view, and they should be identified. Use criteria evaluation to select the approach that will be pursued. Note that all of the emergent approaches will contain bits and pieces of every participant’s ideas, so ownership issues will be greatly reduced.
  6. Refine the selected approach, focusing on implementation. Conduct mini-brainstorming sessions to eliminate any gaps in the plan and/or to resolve potential implementation issues.

Numerous books, articles, and Web sites offer suggestions on how to improve the outcomes of brainstorming sessions. For instance, is an excellent resource. The key is to identify ways to leverage our natural behaviors and abilities and to increase collaboration. in the end, it’s not quantity that counts but how well the group’s divergent ideas can be combined to create a truly new solution that addresses every aspect of the problem or opportunity.

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