Merriam Webster defines brainstorming as a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group.
By contrast, the Oxford Dictionary defines brainstorming as a moment in which one is suddenly unable to think clearly or act sensibly.
Note the difference. While brainstorming can spark innovative business ideas or solutions – that does not always happen. In some cases, a group setting can make employees feel intimated or hesitant to share their thoughts with their colleagues. In other cases, employees may view these group think tanks as boring and a waste of time.
Regardless of how you view brainstorms, here are some common reasons they fail:
- The facilitator leading the session is unable to foster a positive, energetic atmosphere.
- Participants spend more time trying to one-up each other than building on each other’s ideas.
- The meeting organizer has not laid the (important) ground rule that criticism and negative commentary on others’ ideas should be banned.
- Employees feel compelled to talk even when they do not have any contributions to make.
- The person leading the meeting is intent with participants agreeing with his or her ideas rather than coming up with their own.
So how do you get a brainstorm to work? Here are some simple steps:
- Prior to the session, send out an invitation stating the focus of the brainstorm, usually including more information is better so that participants can prepare in advance.
- Invite a diverse group, such as a mix of junior and senior staff; people from multiple disciplines with a common concern; and, perhaps, a “wild card” – someone who can add a fresh, unbiased perspective, preferably somebody who is a lower-level employee or even an intern.
- Remember that the main goal of a brainstorming session is to generate as many ideas as possible. Better yet, have the brainstorm facilitator keep the momentum going by pushing for more ideas, similar to the way an auctioneer would push for a higher bid.
- Getting a large number of ideas requires that the leader keep up the pace and actively push people to share their ideas without self- or group-imposed censorship.
- Don’t be afraid of occasional silence – especially when brainstorming with a smaller group. If people spend part of the meeting gathering their ideas and providing thoughtful suggestions, you may end up with more sophisticated ideas.
- If you are able to choose an idea to pursue by the end of the meeting, assign someone to spearhead the effort and schedule a follow-up meeting.
In addition to what’s listed above, there are also more sophisticated approaches to brainstorming that might be useful for your small business. These include:
- “Brainwriting” involves employees building on each other’s ideas. One way to implement it is to have group members write their ideas on paper and then exchange their lists with others on the team for idea expansion. Another possibility is to create a bulletin board – on a wall or online – where a basic topic is posted and participants can add suggestions and comment on each other’s posts.
- Add a “what if” scenario to your problem-solving session, for example, what if a new competitor entered our market; what if we lost a key member of our leadership team; what if we no longer had our main revenue driver, etc.? Thinking this way may allow you to look at your company in a new light.
- Solo brainstorming is often used in companies with a culture that encourages brainstorming on a daily basis. A person can write one idea each day on an index card and, at the end of the month, shuffle them around and combine ideas.
When done right, brainstorming can be applied to any number of issues a company encounters, including – saving money, increasing profits, inventing innovative new products and services, creating marketing campaigns, retaining staff and more. However, if you want employees to continue to be enthusiastic about participating in this process, be sure that you are committed to putting some of the ideas into action. This way, they know they are making meaningful contributions to your company.