Ideation, the process of coming up with business ideas and concepts, is critical to the success of your business; however, brainstorming is a bit of an art form. In a perfect world, a group of highly motivated people can sit down and bounce ideas off each other until one brilliant plan is revealed. In the real world, brainstorming sessions often backslide into disagreements and doubt. Or worse, no one offers any ideas, and the group fails to make any decisions.
Running a Brainstorming Session
It takes some preparation to pull off an effective brainstorming session where collaboration and teamwork result in fantastic ideas. Follow these tips:
1. Have an end goal in mind.
You must have a specific reason for meeting and be able to clarify that to anyone who participates in the session. If you want to brainstorm a business idea or a new direction for the company, this may be a much loftier task that requires multiple meetings. If you’re looking to improve your business in some way, be specific on how you want to do that. For example, brainstorming how to "increase sales" is too broad and vague. Brainstorming how to "increase sales in December without adjusting our marketing budget" is much more specific and increases the chances that you'll receive workable ideas.
2. Prepare to brainstorm.
Some people can fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to generating ideas. Some of the best ideas will come organically, in unexpected bursts or sudden moments of clarity. Others will need time and brainpower to develop. Schedule the meeting and route the agenda at least one week prior to the session. Tell people exactly what you will be discussing, and ask them to come prepared to share ideas and research they've conducted.
3. Establish rules.
By design, brainstorming sessions are meant to be free-flowing without a lot of structure. However, ground rules can help keep you from losing focus. Some rules to live by:
- People must speak one at a time. No talking over one another, and no side conversations.
- Offer everyone an opportunity to share feedback. One or two people can't dominate the discussion.
- Encourage unusual ideas. Even the outrageous ones, when tweaked, can lead to great ideas.
- Accept all questions. There are no dumb ones.
4. Come up with a vetting strategy.
A great way to make sure an idea is fruitful is to come up with a vetting process. Allow people to ask questions that analyze the feasibility and value of the idea. For example:
- What problem does this solve?
- Are there examples of others successfully executing this?
- Can we compete with those who already do this?
- Can this be executed in the designated amount of time?
- Can this be executed within the designated budget?
- What resources do we need for this idea?
- Is this idea risky? If so, is the reward worth the risk?
5. Include varying perspectives.
It's no doubt that your team can brainstorm and have great success. However, if your brainstorming sessions are lackluster, you may need to shake things up a bit. For example, invite someone from customer service to your marketing meeting. When coming up with new products or business ideas, inviting a customer, vendor or partner can offer great insight. Even friends or family members can offer ideas, concerns or feedback from the perspective of a regular consumer that your group may have never considered.
6. Stay focused.
When ideas are flying, people can quickly go off on a tangent. If the conversation veers off-track, bring the group back to the reason for your meeting. Say: "I'm impressed by all of these ideas, but today, let's focus on the task at hand. How do we increase sales this month on the budget we have already set?"
Mediums for Ideation
If you feel you have the process down, but you're not sure how to get the ideas flowing, here are three popular brainstorming techniques:
A mind map offers you a way to get all of your ideas out of your head and onto paper. All you need is a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard and various colored pens or markers. In the center of the paper/whiteboard, draw a picture that represents the topic of your meeting. Then draw lines radiating out from the center image to words, phrases or images that represent your key concepts. From those words or images, draw lines out to subtopics. You'll gain a visual snapshot of everything the team is thinking. From there, you can begin to shape and mold the ideas. Mindmapping.com offers tons of information on the technique, or check out this free online mind-mapping tool MindMeister.
One of the simplest brainstorming tools, free writing allows you and other participants to dump all of your ideas onto paper before you begin discussions. Set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes and hand participants a piece of paper. Instruct them to write down everything they can think of regarding the topic. Tell everyone to write for the full length of time without stopping to review or edit what they have written. When time is up, go around the room and ask everyone to share an idea. Continue doing so until you have something you can work with.
Examine the topic from six different angles by asking: "What is it like?" (Description); "What is it similar to or different from?" (Comparison); "What does it make you think of?" (Association); "How is it made or what is it composed of?" (Analysis); and "How is it used or what can you do with it?" (Application). Spend just 3 to 5 minutes on each side of the cube, then analyze the data for emerging patterns or unique elements and develop your idea based on those.