Most of us know the rules of the brainstorming process.
The rules say that if you want to get innovative ideas from brainstorming, everyone needs to suspend judgement about what ideas are good or bad and first get all the ideas out there.
The philosophy seems sensible: Even if an idea is awful, the mere mention of something completely off the wall might get someone else thinking about another possibility that could lead to the next innovative idea. Many of us have had experiences where a valuable idea came out of what was originally an off-hand or even ridiculous suggestion.
Except that it rarely seems to work in practice.
Many times I’ve led brainstorming sessions with groups or group of groups and felt like we came up short. One (or more) of three things always seem to get in the way:
- Despite numerous instructions to the contrary and reminders during the brainstorming session, groups almost always get bogged down in the immediate judgement of ideas.
- Someone says something that someone else likes, and the rest of the “brainstorming” session focuses on only that idea.
- Two or three people tend to dominate the conversation (and thus, are the only source of ideas).
I’ve tried lots of things to prevent these. Ultimately, I’ve concluded that human nature is usually too powerful to avoid the above, once a group gets together.
Results suffer too. Lots of people walk away from brainstorming sessions feeling like they haven’t been heard. They learn that it’s not safe to contribute in future interactions. Perhaps worst, many ideas that could have led to innovative approaches never see the light of day.
There is a better way.
Instead of giving groups a framework and getting them talking immediately, start with writing. Here’s how it works:
- Frame the issue to be improved upon (prior to the meeting, if possible).
- Ask each person to independently write as many ideas as they can think of on either a 3×5 notecard or Post-It note. Only one idea per card or note (this is important later). This is solitary work, either prior to getting a group together or independently if the group is already assembled.
- Once the group is back together, each group member gets to state every idea they have written, by going through their stack of cards/notes.
- After all ideas are heard from every group member, then processing can begin.
While the above doesn’t eliminate every obstacle, it provides several benefits:
- All ideas get airtime
- Everyone’s voice is heard
- Less immediate judgement
- More diverse contributions
- Quieter people are heard
You can also benefit from a richer brainstorming session groups are informed in advance about the topic for discussion, thus giving individuals time to think and write before the meeting. For people like me whose ideas are better after thinking for a day or two, that’s huge.
How could you bring writing into your team’s innovation process?