In 2009, I was on a worldwide team that had to update an industry engineering standard. The standard was highly technical and it covered keeping people safe from major accidents in industries using toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals. At one of the early meetings, engineering technical experts flew in from all over the world to participate in the kick-off meeting. One of the large energy companies was hosting it in one of their conference rooms at the corporate office. We arrived early in the morning and went to security to meet our contact. He brought us to the security desk where we had our identification checked and were given security scanning badges.
The conference room we were meeting in was located in an inner sanctum deep inside the highly secure corporate office. The first level of security was a turnstile inside the building and all twenty five of us had to individually swipe our badges to get it to operate. At the next security area, there were double doors and a one foot square security badge scanner that we once again had to swipe our badges to get through. As we were walking down a corridor, our host had to make a bathroom stop and instructed us to follow the signs to the inner conference room. After a period of time, we arrived at another set of double doors where the trouble started. We checked around the door for a similar one foot square security badge scanner, but we could not see it anywhere. After about five minutes of holding our badges up to anything that would resemble a security scanner and not having any luck getting the doors to open, we gave up and decided to wait for our host to reappear. As we were waiting, a little old Hispanic lady came by with her cleaning cart, mops, toilet rolls and cleaning sprays. In broken English, she asked us why we were grouped here. We explained that we could not find the security scanner to open the double doors. She frowned and said in a heavy accent, “Just push, just push to open the doors boys!” One engineer sheepishly pushed on the doors, and they swung open. There, a short way down another corridor, was our conference room. Twenty-five experienced engineers getting ready to do “brain surgery” on an industry standard, and we could not work out the simple task of opening doors…who would have thought?
Brainstorming can be a very effective means to come up with as many ideas as possible when trying to solve a problem or come up with innovative ideas. To maximize participation and the effectiveness of this type of initiative, there are some basic considerations.
Maximizing the value of brainstorming sessions to generate and evaluate ideas:
1. Brainstorming using about 7 to 10 participants can be effective and manageable from a facilitation perspective.
2. Some pre-meeting work may help the effectiveness of brainstorming.
• Clearly understand the problem being solved.
• Identify any pertinent focus areas.
• It may help to get a small group together beforehand to gather background information for the brainstorming session and to do some pre-filtering. This should be done with the intent of using the brainstorming group’s time as efficiently as possible; however, it should not be done to the extent that it limits the effectiveness. The results of this mini-session can be presented to the brainstorming group to help them become orientated to the task at hand.
• Depending on the type of problem being solved, the brainstorming session can sometimes be broken down into a series of meetings with some proof-of-concept trials between them.
3. A diverse group of participants can maximize effectiveness. The following are some considerations:
• Experienced facilitator
• People with specialized technical knowledge
• “Outsiders” – such as customers
• Multi-functional input
• Different levels of experience
• Different personalities
• Some humorous outgoing people to help develop energy and encourage the group to identify “crazy ideas” while stretching the boundaries of creativity
• Be wary of using people who are known to be high volume, vocal, narrow-minded, and forceful persuaders, as they can diminish the energy and creativity of the group
4. Set an atmosphere that is fun, relaxed, and conjunctive to creative thinking. Some simple ice breaker warm up exercises can help build enthusiasm. Provide a prize for the most outrageous idea to encourage a no boundaries forum.
5. Set the agenda and rules up front:
• Get the participants talking about their understanding of the objectives of the specific brainstorming session.
• Reinforce that there are no bad ideas and there should be no judging or criticizing ideas.
• Think outside your area of expertise.
• Capture the ideas first; evaluate the ideas at the end. There should be no premature evaluations.
6. Write out the ideas on a flip chart or white board to help with the visual correlation.
7. Incorporate visuals and hands-on activities where possible. Plan this before the meeting when possible. Using visuals and hands-on activities can help maximize the creativity, participation, and effectiveness of your brainstorming session.
8. Be aware of the tendency to lean towards obvious good ideas and limiting the brainstorming outcome by just building on them.
9. One of the challenges with brainstorming is getting everyone in the group involved. With the “vocal noise energy in the room” you may find that some people (particularly shy people) may refrain from active participation as their inactivity may not be noticed. Hands-on activities can help overcome this challenge, as it is more difficult for people to take a back seat.
10. It is important that brainstorming sessions are not considered futile exercises where nothing the teams suggest ever gets implemented. This can erode the energy and active participation level for future endeavors. It can be highly beneficial to communicate ideas that that are implemented, to recognize the members of the team that identified them, to identify the benefits to the organization, and to even have a reward associated with accomplishments.