Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Soaking rain of ideas in a brainstorm

I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on brainstorming. Sometimes brainstorms are wildly successful, and we come up with really new ways of approaching a problem/solution. Other times, it seems like brainstorms don't really generate much of anything new or interesting. I think there can be a number of reasons for that, but I've been paying attention so I can learn how to get a better hit rate.

Setting the field
Most innovations that have happened in history have come about through applying something that is working to solve a similar problem somewhere else. It is hard to look at the same problem the same way and come up with something new. So, brainstorms are more successful when people bring in new insights. The more successful brainstorms I've been a part of have been well planned and everyone has been a part of some "pre-work" to help prime the pump. Knowing that you have a brainstorm coming up can help you begin to keep your mind open to ideas that might be relevant. We have had good success with having people have deep customer experiences, spending time researching the "edge cases" and sending people off to advance their AQ (Awareness Quotient) through experiences in spaces that aren't directly related to the problem area. Basically, give the participants of the brainstorm some new experiences to draw upon when coming up with new ideas.

Building in diverse perspectives
For a brainstorm to be successful, the team needs to come up with lots of ideas that are different from one another. You are more likely to get a breadth of ideas if you build in diverse perspectives to the brainstorm. There are two ways I've tried that work to bring in diverse perspectives: with the people and the brainstorm prompts.

First, the people. The more diverse the roles, backgrounds and experiences of the brainstorm participants, the more diverse the ideas are bound to be. That is because our experiences shape the way we think, so the ideas we come up with are bound to be influenced by those experiences. The more diverse the people, the more influences come into play on the generation of ideas. So, stack the deck by pulling in a diverse group to participate in the brainstorm.

Second, the brainstorm prompts. Usually when doing a brainstorm, we focus on one thing. Say, for example, we're having a brainstorm about places to go for lunch. We usually do the brainstorm by saying "where can we go for lunch?" and then generate ideas. Recently, though, we've had some real success by breaking apart the brainstorm into a series of smaller brainstorms around themes or sub-categories related to the brainstorm. So, instead of "where can we go for lunch?" we might ask "What Asian food places could we go for lunch? What Mexican food places could we go to? What burger joints could we go to?" What this does is generate a much larger set of options to choose from, inevitably more diverse than we would have gotten to with the larger question. So, stack the deck by breaking up the brainstorm into several smaller-brainstorms.

Going for the slow drizzle after the downpour
Ever been in a brainstorm where everyone comes up with lots of ideas, don't really share them with one another, and then stop when the ideas stop coming? I've noticed something really interesting lately. The REALLY interesting ideas often come later in the brainstorm, when it is hard to come up with ideas and people work harder to combine or alter ideas that are already up. This is the slow drizzle... it is the point at which everyone starts listening to the other ideas and trying to build on them. I was always a little skeptical of "Creative Rainbow" and "Scamper" (brainstorming methods), but now I see that their real value is in the slow drizzle after the initial downpour of ideas. So, build in extra time so that the brainstorm seems to be faltering, then pull out the tools: "What can we combine?", "What can we amplify?"...

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