I worked in an organization that needed to solve a significant performance problem in their product design that was affecting customer satisfaction. In response, they put their best and brightest engineers in a room with a flipchart and markers, ordered them a great lunch and snacks and gave them eight hours to brainstorm and come up with a viable solution.
Of course, no breakthrough happened and the group felt like failures while the company still didn’t have a solution. No surprise.
I recently read an HBR article about why group brainstorming is a waste of time. Anyone who has been through it can agree that, while energizing and even fun, classic brainstorming if often a waste of time.
I believe in the power of idea generation in a group for its ability to create energy and creativity. I also believe in bringing together the right group and leveraging diversity to generate unique solutions.
Like Dr. Deming said, 94% of failures are due to the system, and only 6% are due to the people. It wasn’t the group of engineers fault that they were unsuccessful; their entire system set them up for a gamble. And everyone lost. So how do you set your teams up for ‘idea generating success’?
1. Leverage diversity in your team. If you have a team of six people who all think the same and have the same experience, training, and thinking, then five of them are redundant. Create a team of participants with diverse roles, skills and viewpoints. Folklore has it that it was a receptionist on a team at Ford who came up with one of their most innovative developments, simply because she was a mother who hated having her arms full of groceries while trying to open the back of her vehicle.
2. Give them something to think about. Don’t just tap into what they already know -- get them to learn more and research ahead of time. Give them time to independently fill their brains with new information, trends, insights, patents, market research, competitive information, etc., before they ever enter the room. At the session, you’ll have a group of individuals that each have updated, expanded learning. They’re also already warmed up to think about solutions.
3. Don’t leave idea generation to chance. I have nothing against flipcharts, but they’re just a vessel to capture and record thoughts -- not a tool to inspire ideas. Spark ideas with tools designed to make participants think in new ways, connect with related and unrelated concepts, and collaborate to build on each other’s thoughts.
Using the method above, I have seen small, diverse teams generate over 80 new ideas and recommend viable solutions in as little as four hours. (Lunch included.)
In our world, we call classic brainstorming “brain draining” because it only leverages the ideas already generated in our heads. With the idea generating method above, you stimulate new thoughts, leverage diversity and come up with unique solutions that you couldn’t have even imagined before the session -- in less time.
And isn’t that the point?