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The Perfect Brainstorm
by Alan Rosenspan
Let me introduce you to Molly Ellen.

She’s pretty, but she’s not beautiful.

She’s brilliant, but she’s not smart.

She’s funny, but she doesn’t like jokes.

Now — based on what I’ve told you --try to guess what she likes and what she doesn’t like. And I’ll give you more clues along the way.


"Molly Ellen" is a game I’ve played at some of the brainstorms I’ve led, and it’s a great way to break the ice and get people thinking creatively.

However, after doing so many of them, and thinking about the results, I have come to a conclusion.

Brainstorms are fun to lead and attend. They build teamwork. They feel extremely productive. But, unless they're done absolutely perfectly, they usually don't work.



I'll explain why in a moment. But first, I'd like to share the principles of brainstorming; traps to avoid; and my own personal secrets of getting more value out of the process.


The "rules" of brainstorming

"But I thought there are no rules - isn’t that the point?"

Not at all. Brainstorming began with an advertising executive named Alex Osborne, who was presumably stuck for an idea and decided to ask a few of his colleagues for input.

The first reactions were probably, "Brain what?" and "That sounds like fun, Alex, but some of us have actual work to do."

Osborne set out five core principles, which all brainstorming is built on to this day.

1. Gather together a group of people into a room with plenty of easels and whiteboards.

2. Capture all ideas that come to mind, even if they sound crazy. -- especially if they sound crazy.

3. The more ideas, the better. Your initial goal is quantity not quality.

4. Do not apply critical thinking. There’s no such thing as a bad idea -- the evaluation process comes later.

5. All ideas belong to the group, so people should be encouraged to build on each other’s ideas.

These rules are probably very familiar to you — however, chances are you are even more familiar with the reality of most brainstorms.

First, here’s another clue:

Molly Ellen likes swimming, but she doesn’t like the water.

She likes books, but she hates reading.

She likes running, but she doesn’t like to race.


The reality of brainstorming

To begin with, it’s pretty hard these days to get people together in a room for any reason, much less coming up with ideas. We’re all much too busy.

But assuming you can get on everyone’s schedule, here are some typical problems with traditional brainstorming:

• Production blocking. "I better shut up for a minute and give someone else a turn. What was my idea again? I forget…"

Free riding. "Heck — Susan and Steve are coming up with all the great ideas. They don’t need my thinking. Now what did I need to buy on my way home tonight?…"

Evaluation apprehension. "I know there’s no such thing as a bad idea, but did you see the Boss roll his eyes on that one? Maybe I better keep quiet."

Performance matching. "Why am I doing all the work, and Kenny is just sitting there? He hasn’t come up with a good idea yet. This isn’t fair."

Pressure. "Did she actually say we’re not leaving until we solve this problem? I’m not missing my train. Besides, this isn’t even about my department…"

Each of these problems can cause your brainstorm to fail. And the combination of all of them have led many managers to believe that the whole idea of a brainstorm is inherently flawed.


Are brainstorms really productive?

Sociologists who have studied the process have a definitive answer.

Not usually.

They’ve discovered that people brainstorming individually produce more and higher-quality ideas than the same number of people brainstorming together.

And one analysis showed brainstorming groups are only about half as effective as an equal number of individuals working alone.

As David Ogilvy said, "Search the parks and search the cities. You’ll find no statues of committees."

However, it's been my experience that brainstorming can be very productive if it's led by the right individual in the right way. In the next section, I'll share 9 secrets for more effective brainstorming, based on my experience.


Have you guessed it yet? Maybe this will help:

Molly Ellen likes all of us, but she doesn’t like any of us.

She likes walls and floors, but she doesn’t like ceilings.

She likes calling, but she doesn’t like telemarketing.


My 9 Secrets to More Effective Brainstorming

1. Invite the Right People. You may have assembled a bright and creative group of people -- but they may have little experience with the actual problem or issue to be solved. This often results in "pie in the sky" ideas that can never realistically be implemented.

When I conduct brainstorms about advertising or direct marketing issues, I always try to include people who actually speak to prospects or customers, such as telemarketers and salespeople.


2. Feed ‘em and reap. The presence of Snicker’s bars or bags of M&M’s serve a number of important purposes. They stimulate people; they improve the energy of the group; plus they make sure that people will always be eager to attend your brainstorms — particularly in the afternoon.


3. Don’t invite the boss. Brainstorms work best when every attendee is about the same level. If you have to worry about what your boss is going to think about your next idea — you might not be so quick to venture that far-out idea.


4. Clearly define the problem. Brainstorms are most effective when they are trying to solve a specific problem — not just to "come up with an idea." The problem should be written out and prominently displayed before anyone starts their thinking.


5. Pave Paradise (Put up a Parking Lot.) Every brainstorm creates ancillary ideas that may not be relevant to the problem at hand. But they may be the best ideas.

Don't ignore them. Capture them on Post-it notes and put them in a "Parking Lot" on the other side of the room.


6. Don’t evaluate the ideas at the same meeting. Your creativity hat is a lot different from your critical thinking hat.

Of course, you’ll need to prioritize the ideas, and winnow out the weaker ones, but don’t do it at the brainstorm. It's sure to slow the flow.


7. Manage group dynamics. There’s no faster way to kill the creativity of a group of people than by having one person dominate the brainstorm. You need to make sure everyone feels comfortable contributing.

That’s why many companies use an outside resource — a person who doesn’t work for the company — to lead the brainstorm.


8. Share information Not everyone attending the brainstorm has the same facts or background. I’ve found that an excellent way to begin a brainstorm is to have every member give a brief overview of what they know that’s relevant to the problem at hand.


9. Follow-up is essential. Some of the best ideas come up after the brainstorm. You need to share the notes as soon as possible, while they’re fresh in people's minds, and then have a process for them to keep thinking.

Schedule a follow-up meeting with a smaller group of people who attended the original brainstorm. So they can evaluate ideas, build on them, and decide next steps. This can often be even more productive than the original brainstorm.


How will the Web change brainstorming?

With all the limitations of group brainstorming, many companies have migrated to a new form of brainstorming that takes advantage of the Web.

It’s called Electronic Brainstorming, and the way it works is that you set up a brainstorming website that poses a problem you’d like to have solved. (You can also do this as an e-mail that gets forwarded.)

Participants simply type in their ideas, whenever they come to mind, or whenever they have free time, so there’s less pressure.

All ideas are contributed anonymously, so they don’t have to worry about being criticized.

And people can easily build on each other’s ideas, because the website keeps track of all the ideas and displays them.

The only thing to make sure of is that you need to remind people about your deadline, and make sure that they are contributing to the bank of ideas.

Give up? Molly Ellen likes anything with double letters (just like her name)and doesn’t like anything without double letters.

Try that at your next brainstorm.


So is there a "perfect brainstorm?" Probably not. But is it really worth it to book that conference room, or off-site meeting, send out all those memos, beg, plead and even bribe people into coming?

Yes, it is -- because anything you can do to get people thinking about your product or your problem is probably going to pay off. And it just might pay off big.



George Bernard Shaw said, "Most people never think at all. I've made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week."

Imagine how much more famous he could have been -- if he also had other people thinking for him.

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