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A Key to Effective Brainstorming

By Steve Gillman

If you have ever had a brainstorming session where everyone was just defended their own ideas, you know how this stifles creativity. Worse yet is when people don't suggest ideas at all, for fear they'll be attacked. That's not the way to brainstorm. Brainstorming is about using the power of many minds, and the ideas should flow freely and trigger other ideas. How do you make this happen?

A Secret of Good Brainstorming

Good leadership is necessary to have good brainstorming. A leader isn't there to impose his will, but to stop the imposition of anyone's will. His or her job is to stop any criticisms, arguments, and even strong opinions, at least in the first stage of the session.

A brainstorming session should be spontaneous, open and uncritical. "Bad" or ideas can lead to helpful ones, so suggestions and even "silly" ideas have to be left unjudged at first. You don't want to stifle the creative process. A leaders job, then, is to make everyone feel free to open up with any ideas.

An Example

We'll assume that your business needs to cut delivery costs. The group starts with any ideas or thoughts. "Let's just not deliver," someone suggests. When another starts to criticize, you remind him of the rules. "Negotiate lower rates," someone says, "Or find a different company with lower rates," another adds. Reducing package weight and charging customers more are suggested, and lead to other ideas.

You keep it all civil, take notes, and eventually call a halt to the free-for-all part of the session. Now it's time to evaluate and develop ideas for whatever usefulness they might have.

To keep creativity flowing in this stage, you can have participants defend or develop ideas that are not their own. This can bring new insight to the idea, and prevent the problem of ego-identification that causes people to get "stuck in a rut" with their own ideas.

For example, ask the man who criticized the idea of not delivering to work with that idea. "But we have to deliver," he might say. Then he thinks for a moment and says, "I suppose we could deliver to central distribution points instead of to the individual customer. The customer would drive a short distance to pick up the order. That could save us on shipping."

Someone else suggests that customers may even like the arrangement. They could return the product immediately if they were dissatisfied, with no need to pack it and ship it. You assign someone to look into it, and move on to the other ideas.

Good leadership keeps the whole process moving along. In the last example, you even started with a "bad" idea to come to a possible solution. Now that's good brainstorming.

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