How to create a Brilliant Idea: Our Experience of Successful Brainstorming

Have you ever tried brainstorming only to be disappointed with the result? We had the same problem before we learned all the pitfalls.

Rick Mess       |       May 15, 2020

The brainstorming method is a useful tool — not only in management, marketing, or politics but also for solving personal problems and quickly getting out of a difficult situation. Many companies use brainstorming to find solutions to uncommon issues. The results, however, do not always match expectations. So what do you have to do to generate brilliant ideas instead of a deluge of useless junk?

1. A team is not a lemon!

It’s a common misconception to see brainstorming as simply an informal gathering of people spontaneously firing off any ideas that come to their minds. Brainstorming is a method of teamwork, and it has rules. Paradoxically, to get a creative, out-of-the-box idea, you need a strict and rational organization. Order has to be born out of chaos, not the other way around. However, a creative team shouldn’t be treated as a lemon to be squeezed for its juice by the leader’s strong hand. With each new squeeze you’ll be getting less juice and making the lemon increasingly bitter. How do we ensure a delicious creative outcome?

Our company has long been using brainstorming, and we have discovered numerous advantages of this approach, but also encountered many pitfalls and difficulties. We hope you’ll be able to avoid making our mistakes and losing your precious time and money. So what are the mistakes?

Open any brainstorming manual and the first recommendation will be “Setting the Goal.” But that’s not where you should start!

A friendly atmosphere of trust and comfort is essential for generating good ideas. But if the participants are too relaxed, it may turn into a fun but unproductive bull session. So it makes sense to pick the team members in advance, making sure the group includes competing but not confrontational employees. A good idea is to have a mix of men and women: a pleasant hormonal rush will spur their creativity. Try not to put together people with vastly different career levels. The optimal number is 7 to 8 people. If you have many active employees, the group can be smaller; if most of them are moderately creative, it can be bigger. The important thing is to have people with different perspectives on the issue and knowledge in different areas.

If you have enough staff, you can create two competing groups. You could also use outside help by asking someone to play the role of your customers or target audience.

Now pay attention! Group participants must not make any decisions based on their discussion. This is a job for other people. Like in a trial, where the attorney and the prosecutor affect the outcome but do not make the final verdict. A group of people advocating for their own ideas is definitely not what you need.

2. Motivation is the driver of creativity

There are different kinds of motivating incentives:

Not all employees are interested in the subject you’re so passionate about. So it’s a good idea to have rewards: for example, prizes for the winner and the winning team and small incentives for all participants. The rewards don’t have to be material as long as they’re attractive.

It would be wrong to think of rewards as sufficiently motivating. In the best case, they just encourage people to chatter incessantly to simulate active participation. Our experience shows that the best motivation is recognition and approval of the person who came up with the best idea which you will develop further. This means respect and self-respect, which is worth more than any prize. But even if only one person came up with something truly brilliant during the brainstorming session, you should extend recognition to the whole group. Because it’s unlikely the idea would have been born without the team. When the next time comes, each employee will be enthusiastic in their belief that now it’s their turn to shine!

Fun is a very effective motive. We all enjoy solving fun problems. You don’t want your employee to focus on material rewards or grateful praise from the boss. What you want them to do is put their minds to the task at hand, and the way to achieve that is to make the task fun. This is not always easy. It helps to reword the task and formulate the question. Strive for making the problem as specific as possible without it being too dry and boring. The questions should be fun and even intriguing. Use your imagination to work with the subject. Think, for example, which wording sounds more promising: “How do we do it?” or “How do we make it unforgettable?”

A person getting ready to brainstorm should feel like an excited adventurer — like Columbus about to see land on the horizon.

3. Nothing is too small. Advance organization is key to success

Prepare a room where everyone will be comfortable, with no distractions and easy access to the necessary equipment, a whiteboard or flipchart, and notepaper. It’s better to record audio than video since some people get embarrassed or distracted when they’re filmed.

An important note: people don’t have to sit around the table as if glued in place! Let them move freely around the room. Optimally, they should be standing and moving around — this stimulates mental activity. Some think better when they doodle or make notes. Make sure they have everything they need close at hand.

All preparatory materials should be distributed in advance, ideally 2 to 3 days prior. You can ask your employees to view the materials before going to bed on the night before the big day. It’s a well-known fact that our brains often seek and find solutions while we sleep.

The group must have a leader, who should be chosen in advance.

4. Setting the goal determines the result

We have found that too much information is as bad as too little. If there’s not enough input, the mind has nothing to latch onto, which limits the scope of discussion and produces results that are too vague. Neither is a vast volume of amorphous material a viable option. As always, aim for the happy medium. And remember what we said earlier: set the goal in a way that stimulates the imagination.

5. The brainstorming itself

There are lots of different methods of doing it; much depends on your goals and capabilities. We’d like to list some things that have proved useful in generating good ideas.

6. Drawing conclusions

A lot depends not only on the number and quality of ideas but also on making the right choice. Following a brainstorming session, the ideas should be classified and systematized, and any unfeasible projects laid aside.

Then you should pick the most original and reasonable ideas to make the final shortlist. It’s better to preserve all the ideas for later use: in time, something that looked untenable at first may turn out to be quite useful.

The best kind of analysis is unbiased. A great option is to choose the top 5 ideas anonymously and then compare the results.

Afterword

Our team has reached the conclusion that the quality of brainstorming depends on using the right approach and making proper preparations. The human factor plays an important part. Unless people are motivated and interested, there will be no creative breakthrough. The success of brainstorming depends on how you define the goal, and a poorly worded question can significantly affect the outcome. To choose the optimum project, the final analysis should be unbiased.

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