How to brainstorm for results

Written by Yvan Marston

Do your company’s brainstorming sessions result in concrete ideas and plans that can be implemented right away?

If not, then you’re not applying enough boundaries to your brainstorming meetings. Structure and organization may sound counter-intuitive to free-flowing ideas and out-of-the-box thinking, but they’re not.

“The perception is that if you apply structure you’ll destroy creativity, and that’s wrong,” says Inge Christensen, who heads up Toronto-based Creative Expeditions, which teaches idea generating techniques.

The creative process, she explains, is the sum of creative, strategic and critical thinking.

“[Brainstorming] is not 100% creative, and that’s where people get confused. If you do 100% creative, the idea will not thrive in a business environment because business is also about strategy and critical thinking.”

Brainstorming for results requires measuring your flights of fancy against set criteria and taking certain steps to bring order to your ideas. Here are a few ideas on how to get to the right idea.

Take 15 minutes to prepare

It may sounds obvious, but defining the challenge and gathering the necessary intelligence before the team meets will go a long way to solving the root cause of the problem rather than dealing with what are only symptoms. For example, absenteeism may appear to be the problem you want to address, but upon further examination, stress in the workplace may prove to be what is causing the missed days. Solutions geared to reduce absenteeism will amount to little if the stress remains.

Sorting causes from symptoms needn’t take more than 15 minutes in many cases and can be as simple as a discussion between two of the session’s chief participants via phone or email. Just make certain your focus is clear.

“If your ideas are too general and not actionable,” says Christensen. “that’s a sign that your challenge is too big or off focus.”

Judge not

The rush to a solution often pushes teams to brainstorm and evaluate at the same time. It’s a common mistake that will keep participants from wanting to add new ideas to the mix. A proper brainstorming session should take about two hours, says Christensen, because it takes a while to get people away from familiar thinking. Says Christensen: “You don’t get to the wild stuff until you get all the routine ideas out on the table.”

Trick your brains

Most brains are trained to think in a manner that is acceptable to the organization, says Christensen. “You have to trick your brain to get out of thinking in familiar ways and creative thinking exercises do that.”

One such exercise consists of asking participants to discuss what’s popular today. Create a list of people, places and things and then deconstruct one or two of these to find the attributes that make them popular. Now use the list of attributes as a point of departure for finding ideas that address the challenge.

For example, get the group to discuss why they like certain reality television shows, and then tap into the adjectives they’ve used to describe them. Then discuss what kind of a solution you can come up with that is “unscripted,” “intriguing,” and “cheap to produce.”

If you’re brainstorming properly, says Christensen, ideas should be coming as fast as you can write them down. Consult books and websites to find specific creative thinking exercises that can get the ball rolling again should your team find itself in a stall.

A measure of thought

An hour later, with a flip chart full of scribbles, it’s time to start sifting through the morass of ideas. Combine ideas that are similar and you’ll likely develop three to five separate themes. Each of the essential ideas in these themes should be specific enough for a participant to be able to walk out of the room knowing whom they should contact or exactly what to do to get things started.

Using the implementation parameters of budget, time and people, as well as two strategic criteria (e.g. branding and retention), score the ideas against each other to see how they rank. Using this matrix will allow you to assess whether your ideas have business merit. The last thing you want to do, says Christensen, is get all excited about an idea that you can’t afford and that you don’t have the time or the staff to make happen.”

Read other pointers on How To contribute to your business success!

© 2004 Yvan Marston

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com