If you are a little jaded about the value of brainstorming, you will be pleased to learn that vital, creative questions are better than brainstorming for starting some great new initiatives. Brainstorming is widely used in organizations of all sizes to generate many good new ideas. However, the brainstorming technique has limitations because it is so unstructured. Participants are encouraged to think of ideas no matter how wild and way out they may seem, on the basis that the ideas can later be shaped into something usable by the participants.
However, most people aren’t very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming and therefore the technique does have its limitations.
There are limitations in bringing a team of up to 20 people together in a room for a brainstorming session. The facilitator is often the boss (whose presence makes participants reluctant to offer wildly creative, ‘silly’ ideas) or is an external person who doesn’t understand the organization. Such brainstorming sessions are usually dominated by the extraverts while the others say little. The outputs usually have limited value.
A team of top management consultants developed an alternative way to create new ideas, which has been used successfully to help think up and develop new ideas in a wide range of industries. The consultants conceived the viewpoint that creative questions are better than brainstorming. These have stood the test of time, and are summarized in the 2007 Harvard Business Review article (subscription access) “Breakthrough thinking from inside the box,” by Coyne, Clifford & Dye.
You can refer to some of these vital questions directly in executive committee meetings and other meetings with senior management. These are whole-of-business questions, so you will look extremely wise if you raise them in the presence of organizational leaders. In addition, you can adapt some of the questions to help with creative insights for your PR strategies.
The basic idea is to create a more defined situation by deciding the criteria and boundaries of good ideas. Spell out:
The first thing is to select a suitable group. You will probably have to include some people for political reasons, but you can ensure you have enough people who know the context directly and who can make a worthwhile contribution. Don’t be afraid to invite some external people such as advertising, market research and PR agencies as well as customer-facing employees.
The approach is to select several teams of 4 or 5 participants each. One or two questions can be asked of each group every 30 minutes. In any group of 4, everyone typically participates, in contrast to larger groups in which the introverts will try to hide. Put all the loud and/or pushy people in the same group. This will stop them from silencing others who they would normally dominate.
Give each group a single, highly focused task and specific ground rules. Get them to spend 20-30 minutes discussing one question and report back on the best ideas emanating from that question.
What happens typically is that the first 5 minutes start like any brainstorm with wildly varying quality. Then participants will turn to the better ideas and refine them. The refinements are generally of a higher quality than in brainstorms.
The ideas process should take place over more than one meeting. A follow-up meeting could be held after participants go off to gather data or have some time to ruminate on the ideas.
At the follow-up session, sort out the best ideas on the spot; the selection process for ideas can be done quite quickly while the participants are still there. They respect the prompt decisiveness. Don’t worry about disappointing those whose ideas aren’t used. Most people prefer the choice to be made in front of them so they can learn from your thought process and produce better ideas next time.
The consultants say this process usually generates about 20 ideas per hour on average from a 20-person meeting.
Take note, however, that some people may not adapt easily to this change at first. Due to their previous experiences in brainstorms, they may come unprepared to participate actively, so it may take one session for them to learn to ‘go with the flow’ of the new activity.
One of the best things you can do in managing the process for generating creative ideas is to insert time for ideas to develop in the minds of participants, especially when they can “sleep on it.” Research has proven that concepts develop in people’s minds while they are asleep. So build in at least some overnight time, and perhaps even longer, for participants to ruminate on creative angles. You can read my article, “Increase your creativity by allowing your sleeping brain to work on it“, for further insights on this. The viewpoint in my article is supported by more recent knowledgeable articles on creativity and sleep in:
The consultants list 21 questions (below) for developing new products. You can adapt these to your requirements. If you are invited to participate in ideas sessions in your organization you could review these questions to see if you could use some of them in those groups, even if your organization doesn’t use this methodology. In fact, you could ask some of these questions in executive meetings, strategic planning meetings or in business unit or team meetings such as marketing team meetings. They will make you look very astute because the other participants will soon realize that your creative questions are better than brainstorming in leading to new ideas.
Regardless of the 21 questions, you could start trying to use the creativity methodology in your own area to develop new solutions to some of your issues or even creative angles needed for publicity events. Here are the 21 questions in 6 categories:
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