Most managers simply herd some people in a room with a flip chart and call it a brainstorming session. Yet there is a definite process that maximizes the size and quality of the idea pool. While there are hundreds of valid techniques for doing this, below are just some of the important concepts leaders should consider.
a) The sum of ideas produced by individuals acting alone is greater than the sum of ideas produced by those individuals acting as a group. Further, the diversity and novelty of ideas produced by individuals acting alone is greater than produced in a group. This means that asking group members to think of a set number of diverse and novel ideas before the session and then repeat the process during the session results in greater total output. Be sure to insist that individuals think of new ideas in the group session.
b) Individuals are prone to competency traps and path dependency. This means that it is hard for them to rapidly frame break unless new experience, stimuli or knowledge is introduced. One solution is to import competencies. Bring in new and dissimilar individuals. Try and ensure these new individuals score high on expression, tacit knowledge and status.
c) Brainstorming usually implies that the solution to a problem is being sought. Thus one good principle is to break the session into three parts – problem identification, idea generation and idea selection. It is amazing how many different perceptions of a problem often exist. Each problem definition generates its own set of ideas. This stage-process allows the separation of creative from critical thinking. Writing and editing are two very different processes.
d) Set incremental goals. Incremental goals produce more output than “do your best.” Further, they trigger prolific production; it can be said with great certainty that quality is closely connected with quantity – the single best creative product tends to appear at that point in the career when the creator is being most prolific.
There are at least two types of incremental goal: 1) short term – this forces production of output and 2) longer term – this allows problems to incubate at various cognitive levels and results in the required insight.
e) Foster collaboration instead of competition. Competition causes people to shut down, restricts the flow of information and creates core and peripheral groups. On the other hand, collaboration allows the intellectual cross-pollination that is the raw material for the idea generation process.
f) One of the top idea generation killers is slow or non-existent implementation. People just will not take idea generation seriously if nothing tangible resulted from the last brainstorming session. Ensure direct links to decision makers and visible progression through the innovation process – idea selection, development and commercialisation.
g) Don’t rely on “creative types.” Everyone can generate large numbers of diverse and novel ideas. Whilst there are assertions that there are creativity traits such as lack tolerance for conformity and tolerance for ambiguity, these theories are questioned on the basis that traits are hard to identify, isolate and are not stable or transferable across situations. Further, other criteria such as motivation and competencies are critical.
h) Think beyond brainstorming. The concept of brainstorming as the only effective method of good idea generation is questionable. Some brainstorming negatives include: 1) dilution of ideas, 2) lower rates of participation from individuals who score low in expression and 3) evaluation apprehension. Idea boxes, idea intranets and knowledge bases are just some methods of maximising the contribution of every individual.
These and other topics are covered in depth in the MBA dissertation on Managing Creativity & Innovation, which can be purchased at http://www.managing-creativity.com
Kal Bishop is a management consultant based in London, UK. He has consulted in the visual media and software industries and for clients such as Toshiba and Transport for London. He has led improv, creativity and innovation workshops, exhibited artwork in San Francisco, Los Angeles and London and written a number of screenplays. He is a passionate traveler.