Putting the Brain back into Brainstorming

I think the time has come to kill the word brainstorming.  The word has become so butchered, methinks it has little or no meaning.  Or, if it has a meaning, it can be any one of the following:

  • A called meeting with no real agenda
  • Voting to decide which direction to go in next
  • Writing on a flip chart with colored makers
  • AA for business types
  • A be-ah-ching-with-no-solutions-expected session

 Maybe killing it is too harsh – after all it’s not its fault. Maybe the real solution is to put the BRAIN back into brainstorming.

Let’s first try these things before we decide brainstorming’s final fate:

1)   Have a concrete expectation on the outcome of a brainstorming session.  When the brainstorming session is over, what do you want to walk out of the room with?  [The answer can only be one simple sentence.]

2)   Publish the topic, problem statement, and expected outcome prior to the meeting.  Everyone should be on the same page before walking in the door.

3)   Do plenty of research BEFORE the event and expect others do the same.

4)   Have a method to control the flow of information.  Don’t allow the talkers to dominate the session and the deep thinkers to keep quiet.

5)   Define the problem concisely and groupthink possible causes.  Once you understand the why of the problem, the solution should be fairly straightforward.

a)    If the team brainstorms solutions first, the cause of the problem can easily be overlooked.  By brainstorming the solutions first, the problem-solving process gets short-circuited.

b)   Agree on the problem’s cause before talking about solutions.  If the team can’t agree on the cause, they will never develop a coherent solution.

6)   Keep the team focused on the problem statement.  Avoid non-productive diversions and conversations.  Minimize side bars and one-on-one conversations.

7)   Develop an action plan before you dismiss the group. What, who, and when must be assigned.

8)   Decide who will be responsible for following up on the action items.  (It will probably be you, since you are now the one who knows how to effectively brainstorm.)

Talking through problems as a team, investigating potential causes, and conceptualizing possible solutions are all part of traditional brainstorming. We often fall into the trap of assuming that a brainstorming session will automatically solve the problem.  But not so.  Brainstorming is just a part of the problem-solving process.  Use it wisely and you will succeed.


Finding Solutions in Life or at Work

Here’s a few tips on solving problems at home or work.  Or, these may just be tips on how to be better at whatever it is you choose to do.  I’m not sure which.

  1. Never say “It’s not my problem” or “I don’t have time.”
  2. Listen 20 times more than you speak.
  3. Spend more time defining the box than trying to think outside of it. (P. Trunk)
  4. Narrowly define the basic conflict that creates the problem.
  5. Decide what a good solution looks like or sounds like.
  6. Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see. (D. Bell)
  7. Gather and synthesize meaningful information and relevant data.
  8. Research other industries, cultures, technologies, and ideas.
  9. Hang around smart people and listen.
  10. Constantly compare the information you gather to the basic conflict.
  11. Make time to sit and think.
  12. Doodle your ideas on paper.
  13. Don’t give up.
  14. Don’t give up.
  15. Don’t give up.


Communication has replaced Collaboration

“Lack of communication” is a complaint often leveled against employers by their employees.  “Nobody told me,” “I didn’t get the memo,” and “There’s something they’re not telling us” are often signs our team members feel disengaged.

I don’t’ believe that this disengagement is caused by a lack of communication. When it comes to the flow of information, we are like puppies with the windows rolled down.  So much fresh information, we don’t have enough capacity to absorb it all. In the digital age of email, intranets, Facebook, and Google Docs, we communicate incessantly, obsessively, and ultimately irrelevantly.

The truth is communication has replaced collaboration.  I started my career just before the growth of the internet and email exploded.  I remember having to walk down the hall or pick up the phone to make contact with my mentors.  We had meaningful and interactive conversations that challenged my mind and engaged my senses.  Now, our culture is to fire off emails left and right to ensure CYA.  What is lacking in the flood of electronic yapping is a forum for real people to have real conversations about real solutions to real problems.

Want to be a problem-solver?  Don’t just communicate, collaborate!