Brainstorming ground rules: How to get better ideas from your team

My colleagues Laurie Breitner and Karen Utgoff have done posts recently about how to encourage innovation in your business. One of the standard tools for developing new ideas is the old-fashioned brainstorming session. But alas, too many leaders and their teams don’t know how to effectively use brainstorming and, as a result, many brainstorming sessions produce few results.

Here are brainstorming ground rules that will significantly improve your team’s ability to generate solid ideas. I got these rules from my friends at Creative Realities, a Boston innovation consulting firm that works with Fortune 200 companies. But these guidelines aren’t just for the big guys. They can pay dividends in organizations of any size.

Place these rules on a flipchart where everyone can see them at the start of a brainstorming session and review them aloud before you start the meeting. Put someone in charge of reminding people if they’re breaking the rules during the session. Rotate this role from meeting to meeting.

Sooner than you know, people will adopt these rules and you’ll be getting more ideas and better ideas from your brainstorming sessions.

The ground rules

•  No bazookas! A bazooka occurs when someone shoots down another person’s idea. Often, people use humor to do this and so it doesn’t seem like such bad a thing. However, bazookas, whether humorous or not, are idea killers. And if it’s the boss who uses a bazooka, it kills the whole brainstorming session. After all, who wants to offer up an idea only to have the boss make a joke about it? If someone bazookas an idea, point that out. Don’t let it pass without recognizing what has just happened. Pretty soon, the bazookas will stop because nobody likes to get called out on their bad behavior. (When Creative Realities does a brainstorming session with a client, they have plastic bazookas that shoot little balls. People are encouraged to bazooka anyone who bazookas an idea.)

•  Start with a headline. (Keep it short.) Nothing causes people to tune out more quickly than someone who drones on and one before getting to the real gist of their idea. Remind people to “Give us your headline” at the start so people can immediately know what the idea is. The idea is to get as many ideas up on the board as possible and not to evaluate them immediately. So long-winded speeches meant to “sell” everyone on an idea are not necessary and, in fact, are counter productive.

•  No side whispers. (One meeting at a time). This should be standard practice for any meeting, not just brainstorming. But in brainstorming, it’s especially important to have everyone focused on the task at hand and on listening to what the person who has the floor is saying. If this isn’t happening, you’re losing the possibility of someone saying something that sparks a great idea from someone else.

•  Use a pad to capture ideas. (Doodle!) Make sure everyone has a pad to write on. This helps people develop their ideas into headlines and helps make sure that ideas aren’t lost. And for doodlers, it gives them an outlet to help them think through their ideas visually.

•  Build on each other’s idea. (Steal, but give credit.) Encourage people to improve on other’s ideas by saying something along the lines of “I really like Sally’s idea and I think it can be made even better if we….” Giving credit is important because people hate to feel like their ideas are being hijacked without proper recognition. Just a little bit of recognition can go a long way toward getting someone to buy into the expansion of their original idea.

•  Offer ideas vs. questions. (Questions mask ideas.) People who are hesitant about offering up their ideas (perhaps they’ve been bazooka-ed too many times) often ask questions that hide their ideas. If someone asks a question, ask what idea they’re trying to get to. And remember that some people will use questions to bazooka someone else’s idea. Don’t let this happen.

•  Think and link. Perhaps the group has come up with two moderately good ideas that can be combined into one great idea. Once you have a good number of ideas on the board, ask everyone to see if there are any possibilities where ideas can be merged to make them stronger.

In case you missed them, here are Karen and Laurie’s recent posts on innovation:

6 ways to find inspiration to fuel innovation in your small business

Encouraging innovation: Rebuilding your airplane while in flight

Think outside the suggestion box: Encourage creativity in the workplace

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