Monday, October 20, 2008

How to Brainstorm

Wisdom from Harvey:
Harvey Mackay's Column This Week

Don't rain on your brainstorm

If I give you a dollar and you give me a dollar, we both have one dollar. But if I give you an idea and you give me an idea, we each have two ideas.

That's the power of brainstorming -- creating a lot of ideas to help solve problems or do things better.

I thrive on creativity, and brainstorming is creativity at its grass roots. Unfortunately, most of us have been in brainstorming sessions when something destroys the mood that allows people to openly express their ideas. It can be as simple as a snicker or a laugh.

When you're brainstorming, rule #1 should be that there are no bad ideas. Sometimes you have to go on a wild goose chase to realize wildly creative ideas.

Advertising genius Alex Osborn integrated creativity with everything he did—every day. Considered the "father of brainstorming"—a term he helped coin in 1939—Osborn devoted his life to promoting and teaching creative thinking. And the fiercest enemy of creativity, he believed, was criticism: "Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Any of us will put out more and better ideas if our efforts are appreciated."

Here are some brainstorm killers to strongly avoid if you want your session to be profitable and the remedies I recommend for each:

  • Allow criticism. Nothing will kill a brainstorming session faster than allowing comments like, "Are you kidding?" "You're crazy." "Boy that's stupid." No one should laugh at another's idea or shake their head in disgust.
  • Don't have any fun. Brainstorming is supposed to be fun. For 40-plus years at MackayMitchell Envelope Company, we've opened all our sales meetings with everyone going around the table and telling a funny, tasteful joke. Laughter relaxes people. You have to create a relaxed atmosphere to get people in the mood to brainstorm ideas.
  • Favor some ideas. Every idea is equal. You can't play favorites. Remember, there is no such thing as a bad idea in a brainstorming session. Some turkey suggestions can turn into soaring eagles.
  • Everybody speaks only when it is their turn. Brainstorming is improvisation at its best. You can't slow things down and make sure everyone goes in order. Spontaneity is important. Allow participants to share ideas whenever inspiration hits. Take advantage of flashes of genius.
  • The boss has a lead role. There is no problem with the boss being on hand, but he or she is on an even footing with everyone else. All are there to provide ideas. The boss is merely a member of the group. Don't allow a hostile takeover.
  • Type of participants isn't important. If you truly want to brainstorm a problem, you can't have everyone from the same department in the room. You need people from sales, customer service and production. "Outsiders" provide a different point of view. But you can't have forced participation. People should want to be there. Similarly, employees can't be afraid of "consequences" if they say the wrong thing.
  • Write everything down. I can't tell you how many times I've been in brainstorming sessions where every idea gets written down on a board and the time delay slows the creativity process. Have a note taker who can write fast or knows shorthand. Maybe you want to have two people take notes so you don't miss anything. But don't slow down the creative process.
  • Don't set any ground rules. Set a time limit. Let people know what to expect.
  • Bad atmosphere. On-site is best, but the setting needs to be comfortable and free of distractions. Pick a time when people are fresh and not rushed.
  • Lack of a skilled facilitator. You need someone who can keep things moving, fun and focused on the task at hand. Look for someone who will stop any criticism of ideas and keep the boss in his or her place. A facilitator need not be a good brainstormer, just good at pulling ideas out of people.
  • Don't act on any ideas. If you or your company have a history of not following through on anything, employees will view the exercise as a waste of time and all you get is sarcastic input.

Mackay's Moral: Minds are like parachutes—not much good unless they are open.

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