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Six tips for better brainstorming

By George Webster, CNN
updated 11:58 AM EST, Fri January 20, 2012
Six experts explain how to make brainstorming more productive.
Six experts explain how to make brainstorming more productive.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Business brainstorms are often poorly conducted, says leadership consultant
  • However, if applied correctly, they can be a highly effective and profitable resource
  • Three experts give us their six tips on how to organize successful brainstorms
  • Don't think outside the box; ask the right questions and always follow up with action

(CNN) -- It's a familiar scene: The boss calls for a brainstorming session and everyone obediently shuffles into the conference room to stare at a white board, trying to pull new ideas out of thin air.

The result? A handful of participants monopolize the conversation, a few others contribute occasionally, while the remainder sit waiting to get back to work.

"The typical session lacks structure and focus," says Shawn Coyne, co-author of "Brainsteering: A better approach to breakthrough ideas."

"Some ideas seem quite interesting, some of them ridiculous, some are great but will never see the light of day. In the end, people mostly leave feeling dissatisfied and frustrated," he adds.

For Brian Clegg, director of Creativity Unleashed -- a consultation firm that helps businesses apply creative thinking methods -- companies are harnessing only a fraction of the brainstorming session's potential.

"It's a bit like having the latest smart phone and only using it to make calls," he laments.

So, how do you turn a light brainshower into a fully fledged brainstorm?

Don't think outside the box

If the organization you work for has limited resources and fixed company policies, then being told to "think outside the box" is unhelpful -- because you'll end up with a raft of ideas that couldn't possibly be implemented, suggests Coyne.

"That's why it's critical to know the company's decision-making criteria before you start," he says. "Instead of thinking outside the box, you should think inside a carefully crafted box with enough structure to help guide your thinking without over-constraining it."

At the same time, Clegg warns against artificially stifling creativity: "Remember, it's easier to make an exciting idea practical than a dull-but-practical idea exciting."

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Ask the right questions

So how do you strike the right balance between pragmatic and imaginative ideas? Coyne believes that the key to finding the best solution is asking the best question.

"If you talk to Nobel prize winners about how they came up with their brilliant idea, they'll often tell you it was easy after they'd discovered the question -- which was the really hard part."

According to Coyne, one of the most frequently asked -- yet counter-productive --questions in business is, "how can we increase profits?" This, he says, is both too vague and too common a line of inquiry.

"You've asked it a million times, so it's no surprise you're getting the same old ideas back. You must force yourself into thinking more tightly and to looking at it from different angles," he says.

For example, Coyne says you might instead ask yourself what your customer's biggest hassle is in using your product, or indeed, what unusual uses some customers have for it that you could capitalize on.

If the group is having trouble thinking of new perspectives then introduce something provocative or unexpected -- like an unusual photograph or object -- and ask them what associations they make with it, suggests Clegg.

"It doesn't have to be directly related to the business, but it's a useful way to jump-start people out of their normal thinking patterns," he says.

Scale down

Now you've established the parameters of the brainstorming session and carefully selected what questions you want answered, don't just throw them out there for the group to discuss.

If there's 20 people in the room, you'll have three talking loudly and 17 not saying anything.
Shawn Coyne, author and consultant

"If there's 20 people in the room, you'll have three talking loudly and 17 not saying anything," warns Coyne.

The author and business consultant says it's best to divide into small groups of between three and five. "Our research shows that this is the optimum number," he says. "If there's just two of you, then one will end up dominating, whereas once you get to six or seven, natural conversational patterns take over and the group will subconsciously split down into two sub-groups, which is disorientating."

Be selective

When you assign people to subgroups, it's important to cast "idea crushers" off to their own individual island. These people are the those who in one way or another inhibit others from suggesting good ideas.

According to Coyne they come in three shapes: "big mouths," who squeeze out air-time for the less forthcoming; "subject matter experts," who can intimidate others with their presumed superior knowledge; and bosses, who can intimidate just by being in the same room.

Coyne says there's also nothing wrong with hand-picking your brainstormers based simply on who's best positioned to answer the question.

"If they have more experience with the issue, get the receptionist, salesman or truck drivers in the room -- rather than inviting those with the most impressive job title, or indeed just anyone who'll come."

James Manketelow, founder of leadership training firm Mindtools.com, says that it's possible to take this idea further, by slowly adding members to the session one by one: "This way, each new participant can inject a fresh perspective without being too influenced by what others have said," he explains.

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Remain focused

Remember, your group is familiar with the conventional brainstorm, where ideas come thick and fast but are often ultimately shallow, says Coyne.

"So, in a two-hour session, encourage them to focus in their groups on just one question every half hour," he says. "It's good to remember that in the first five minutes, most ideas are pretty mediocre and it's only through pushing through and really exploring an idea that you realize its potential."

It's important to let all ideas breathe and never be too negative.
James Manketelow, Mindtools.com founder

In this spirit, Manketelow recommends the "round-robin" approach -- where each participant writes their initial idea on a piece of paper and then passes it over to a colleague to be elaborated on and developed.

"Whatever approach you take," he says "it's important to let all ideas breathe and never be too negative about (another colleague's) suggestion. Some might sound silly at first but, with a little refinement, these are often what turn out to be the most exciting."

Make big promises and keep them

Whoever is organizing the group place needs to make clear that whatever the group comes up with, at least one of the ideas will come to something, insists Coyne.

"Now everyone knows they're playing with live ammunition and it really focuses the thinking," he explains.

The same person should maintain momentum by following up the brainstorm as soon as possible with their selection of those ideas that made it and an explanation why, adds Coyne.

"Those with ideas that got picked are excited and those that didn't get picked will understand -- and in future they'll come up with suggestions more in line with the objective."

Lastly, Clegg recommends using the brainstorm not just for generating new ideas, but for working out how to get them materialized.

"It's easy to get over-excited about a brilliant idea, but to see it through it needs to be signed off," he says. "So it's worth spending some of the session on figuring exactly how you're going to package (it) to the people up top."

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