Sitting through a “worst practices” brainstorming is frustrating and pointless. This article gives you a step-by-step process for best practice brainstorming. This process works. It’s fun. And it produces results. It’s the basis for many processes that Critical to Success will describe in other articles. For example, you can expand on this brainstorming process to help with,
I got my first taste of this process in an excellent workshop for facilitators taught by Jane Stallman, Sr. Partner at the Center for Strategic Facilitation in Oakland, California. They have excellent courses on facilitating processes to build consensus. With CSF’s core training under my belt about ten years ago I’ve since adapted their techniques for many team processes including brainstorming, root cause analysis, group decision making, and aligning disparate groups. Jane and CSF do great work!
Here are the steps for a basic brainstorming process that works far better than any other I’ve seen. This method lets everyone’s ideas surface, gives equal presence to the HiPPO and to the quietest person. It keeps the loudmouths in control, surfaces the quiet brilliant ideas, allows grouping and prioritization, and almost does the documentation for you. Sounds like a perfect package, doesn’t it!
The meeting leader should not be the HiPPO or manager or team leader. The leader should be a facilitator who is objective and who will not weight one idea or individual above another. HiPPOs or managers can easily sway a direction with a subtle nod or smile at what they think is a good idea.
The facilitator should work with the key stakeholders to develop a well-defined one sentence objective for the brainstorming. This objective should be posted as a banner across the front of the room. Examples are,
Invite eight to twelve people. These should be stakeholders who are highly experienced in the topic, but are cross-functional. Cross-functional people will deliver a wider variety of solutions than if everyone in the room has the same experience and background.
Let everyone know the objective of the meeting. Give them the tip that for two days prior to the meeting they should carry 3 X 5 cards with them and write down their ideas. THEY SHOULD DO NOT COME TO A CONSENSUS BEFORE THE MEETING. You do not want people talking together prior to the meeting and coming up with a pre-arranged agreements. Let them know that everyone will get their ideas heard in the meeting.
If you have people who might be difficult in the meeting, discuss with them ahead of time how the meeting will work. The purpose is not to drive to a single winning idea (THEIRS), but rather to generate a lot of ideas, narrow the list to the best, and then identify the ideas to act on. Tweak their self-interests by informing them that if their idea is select from during this process then it will prove it is the best one and everyone will be onboard.
In one facilitation with a team of senior executives, an Executive Vice President talked to me the day before the meeting about why his idea had to “win”. I stayed neutral in response. In the meeting we started with brainstorming, went through an affinity diagram process similar to this, and then a ranking and prioritizing process. After a tough and sweaty half-day of hard work the team came up with their prioritized corporate objectives for the next year. The same VP came up to me after the meeting and told me, “My objective and its projects came up as fourth priority, but after seeing everything together and hearing all the discussion now I know why the others are ahead and I support them.”
Pick a room in neutral territory that will comfortably fit eight to twelve people. Make sure there’s good air conditioning. Ask everyone to set their phasers to stun, and turn off cell phones and heart pacemakers. For the following exercise you’ll need a large wall or whiteboard on which you can put Post-It Notes ™.
The large horizontal, unlined Post-Its that are half the size of US letter allow for writing that can be seen across the room. (I’ve tried third-party store brand sticky notes and, sorry, but they just aren’t as good as Post-It notes.) Expo dry erase pens allow for an “Oops” that won’t permanently disfigure a meeting table or white board. (I have no affiliation with these products. I just like them and use them – a lot.)
Describe the objective so everyone is clear what ideas should focus on. Let everyone know the objective was defined by the stakeholder’s.
Let everyone know there will be lots of discussion later and everyone will be heard, but at this point no one should discuss their ideas.
Brainwriting is free flow writing where each individual writes their ideas on a pad. There should be NO TALKING during this time. They can use ideas they’ve written previously on 3” X 5” note cards.
The next step is for everyone to transfer their individual brainwriting to a Post It Note. But, there are a few rules on writing these. If people don’t write on the notes correctly it slows the process. Post these “Rules” in clear view on the wall.
Give everyone three to five minutes to write their ideas. Watch people and give them some leeway to finish their Post-It notes.
Break the large group into smaller groups of three or four people. These groups will discuss their ideas and pick the “best” 50% from their notes.
As you pick up from each group, stick their notes on a wall forming a giant “smiley face” across the bottom of a smooth wall or white board. The “smiley face” will give you room in the top center to move notes around.
Picking up the notes in this fashion makes it easy to mix the HiPPO cards and notes from less powerful people.
As you post each note, read it aloud and ask if everyone understands. Do not put a value judgment on a note. I once said, “Wow! That’s a really great idea!” In that case I was not an impartial facilitator, I was an unbalanced facilitator.
Ask people to help you group PAIRS of ideas that have a similar intent. Only create pairs. If your first groupings of notes are too large then subconsciously people won’t want to move them later.
Some ideas might not match others. That’s Ok.
As the facilitator you’re at the front of the room being told where to move notes. It can be tough to know which group of notes people are talking about. To fix this problem ahead of time I create a set of about 12 notes of a different color from the idea notes, e.g. all reds, that have icons on them like, sun, moon, car, plane, triangle, circle, etc. Use these “idea icons” as headings for groups of notes on the wall. Then you’ll hear things like, “Put that note under the circle.”
Pick up and stick the remaining notes across the bottom of the wall.
Now build on the existing groups and make new groups of notes with similar intent. Continue moving and grouping ideas until everyone agrees each group has the same intent.
It’s rare to have fewer than six groups or more than ten. And there are always a few outliers that are single notes by themselves.
These titles are not necessarily the final titles, but they will give the team easy descriptions to use.
Now that you have a foundation of ideas you can be specific about what actions to take. Now is when the meeting should turn to,
At this point you can take the ideas you’ve generated many directions. The ideas the group has generated should be a good base for task lists, project management Work Breakdown Structure, marketing campaigns, and more. Of course, this is just a beginning so some things you will want to do are,
Get the stakeholders and a few key team members together in a week, after the neurons have had a chance to do some background recalculating, and go through the work. After that you should have a darn good result.