Organizations thrive on good ideas. Yet many attempts at brainstorming are unsuccessful. You can boost the odds that your organization will generate better ideas—and act on them—by asking better questions.
Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne write on brainstorming in a recent McKinsey Quarterly issue. “Brainsteering” is their term for improving on brainstorming, which seems to be so difficult in so many organizations. Here are their “Brainsteering” criteria:
Know your organization’s decision-making criteria: One reason good ideas hatched in corporate brainstorming sessions often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider. Managers hoping to spark creative thinking in their teams should therefore start by understanding the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about the resulting ideas. The goal is a “fistful of ideas that are practical, affordable and profitable within one fiscal year” is an example of specific real criteria.
Ask the right questions: Decades of academic research shows that traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques are inferior to approaches that provide more structure. “The best way we’ve found to provide it is to use questions as the platform for idea generation”, the authors note. In practice this means building your workshop around a series of “right questions” that your team will explore in small groups.
Choose the right people: This rule is simple: pick people who can answer the question you’re asking. Choose people with firsthand, “in the trenches: knowledge.
Divide and conquer: To ensure fruitful discussions, don’t have your participants hold one continuous, rambling discussion among the entire group for several hours. Instead, have them conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups of 3-5 people, focusing on a single question for 30 minutes. Isolate the “idea crushers” in their own subgroup. Take the 15-20 questions you prepared earlier and divide them among the subgroups, about 5 question each.
Ready, set, go: Before dividing into subgroups, orient them about expectations about what they will—and won’t—accomplish. Thoughtfully consider and discuss a single question for 30 minutes. Prepare your groups for the likelihood that when a subgroup attacks a question, it might generate only 2-3 worthy ideas. Urge your participants to preserve through the initial 5 minutes and get past the “typical brainstorming” reactions.
Wrap it up: By day’s end, a typical subgroup has produced perhaps 15 interesting ideas. Don’t have the full group choose “best ideas” from the pile. Instead, have each group privately narrow its own list of ideas to a top few and share all the leading ideas with the full group to motivate and inspire participants. Don’t try to pick a winner! Close with a description of what steps will be taken to choose winning ideas and how they will learn of final decisions.
Follow up quickly: Decisions and follow-up activities should be quick and thorough. Close the loop with participants and make sure to communicate the results of the decisions quickly to everyone involved, even when an idea was rejected.
“Scrap traditional brainstorming techniques,” urge the authors, and “use more focused, question-based approaches”, enabling senior managers to consistently coax better ideas from their teams.