[This is the first part of a two-part series on Brainstorming during the COVID-19 crisis.  Part 2 will be published shortly.]

As business owners struggle with the COVID19 crisis and spend many sleepless nights worrying about cash flow, employee retention and the long-term health of their companies, I would like to share that many successful companies have turned to what is called “Brainstorming” as a way to generate ideas that could in turn help the business grow and survive. Brainstorming is the best-known group approach to idea generation and can often be the most productive, efficient, and effective. For one reason, if your management and employee team is involved in generating, evaluating, and approving the ideas for implementation, then everyone has a clear understanding of the idea, its objective, and what has to be done to implement it. This eliminates many of the practical hurdles to implementation and success.

But first, a word of caution: Brainstorming involves more than just getting a group of people together to discuss a problem, any problem, be it sales, operational, or financial/administrative. A successful brainstorming session is not difficult, but it is not trivial, either. We hope this article helps.

A suggested overall approach

In general, successful Brainstorming sessions will have two phases: 1) a Creative or Idea Generation or ‘Divergent’ phase, where ideas are generated around the problem, without any criticism, second guessing or devil’s advocacy taking part and 2) a ‘Convergent’ or Analytical, Screening phase, where the ideas are evaluated and either tossed out or included in a second  phase of analysis. Very frequently ideas are combined into one at this second phase as synergies or complementarities between them become apparent to the Brainstorming group. Once the ideas have been defined, then the Screening phase may be repeated until one or two ‘winning’ ideas are decanted. These are then chosen for a third  phase, outside of the Brainstorming process, 3) the development or implementation, which can be done by either the Brainstorming group or a more specialized group, within or without the Brainstorming group, selected for that task.

Composition of the Brainstorming Group

I am a great believer in diversity, having seen throughout my professional career that different points of view, including people of different ages, obviously gender, professional, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds lead to a richer generation of ideas. Even if it is a Sales & Marketing problem, for example, having  people from Finance, Treasury, Administration, HR, Operations, Logistics, R&D and any other departments, will greatly enrich the discussion, provide a fuller set of ideas and speed up the implementation of the group’s conclusions. This is not hearsay. I have seen very junior members of Brainstorming groups provide ideas that changed the course of the discussion and the direction of their firms. Thus, even the most junior member has to be on an even footing with the Owner or CEO of the firm while and if both are in the Brainstorming group. At the end of the session, all ideas generated will belong to the group, not any specific individual. Rewards, if any, tangible or intangible, belong to the group, not any member.

I have been in Brainstorming groups that range from over fifty people to less than ten. If the overall group is larger than six or eight, then it is recommended that sub-groups be formed, at least at the Idea Generation Stage, so that everyone has a chance to participate. In this manner, ‘Window Shoppers’ or silent participants are reduced, and the dynamic and inclusive quality of the session is enhanced. I have seen that breaking the group down into smaller groups of between three and six people for the Idea Generation phase has given consistently good results. While more difficult, each one of these sub-groups, or ‘tables’, should attempt to maintain as much internal diversity, reflective of the larger group, as possible.

The Moderator

The Moderator of the Brainstorming session is a key person. While no hard and fast rules exist, my personal experience based on the over a dozen or so Brainstorming sessions as either Moderator, Facilitator or Participant in the course of my forty years of management and consulting career, is that the Moderator should NOT be one of the participants or idea generators.  The Moderator should be someone with good people skills so as to be able to steer the discussions towards the objectives without offending people’s sensitivities and creating hurt feelings. On the other hand, the Moderator also needs to have a broad enough vision of the problem and challenges to be solved to understand where each participant’s or group’s contribution fits in the big picture.

Large firms have the resources to hire external, professional facilitators. Family or small firms, hit by COVID19, falling sales or no sales, generally do not. Large firms have the luxury of asking supervisors and managers to ‘stay away’ from brainstorming sessions so as to give the ‘rank and file’ or ‘shop floor’ employees a chance to speak freely without ‘executive supervision’, but, again, most small firms do not. When the organization’s survival is at stake, everyone must pick up an oar.

The Moderator’s role is to help define the process to be followed and the ground rules. He/she may have some initial ideas to present to the group for discussion/modification/approval, or he/she may simply moderate the initial definition of the ground rules and procedures for the Brainstorming session. Either one works. I personally prefer that the Moderator come in with at least some ideas as to how to achieve the goals required. He/she can contribute these if discussion flags or fails.

Apart from keeping the group within the ‘guard-rails’, the Moderator should jump in when the group gets stuck, when ideas do not come, or when hard conflict raises its ugly head. The Moderator should attempt to stimulate ideas and discussion within the general group or subgroups – if these were formed – without giving the impression that he/she has a preferred plan or path to a solution. In small firms, whether the Moderator is or not a senior member of management is not the key issue. The key issue when the Moderator is an internal firm member, is that he/she be respected by the majority of the group or firm and that his/her judgement is held in high esteem by all.

The Moderator has a double challenge and task: 1) to keep the group working towards finding a solution, while 2) not losing sight of the ultimate goals and avoiding the ‘rabbit holes’ or dead ends or premature conclusions that could lead to a logjam or breakdown in the process, then or later. This requires that the Moderator be able to keep the big picture in mind, set his/her personal agenda and preferences aside, and be able to understand the problem, assimilate in real time a great deal of information, both spoken opinions and unwritten body language, while taking a neutral and impersonal approach to the problem and the ideas presented. Overall the Moderator must maintain a strong commitment to the overall process and the goals sought.

If there is no official “Recorder” for the session, then the Moderator has to assume that responsibility and ensure that at the stage of analysis or generation all ideas are documented, along with their pros and cons as evaluated in the Brainstorming session.

Finding the right Moderator is often the sine-qua-non of a successful Brainstorming session. In this the business owner and top management need to devote careful attention. Unless there is a specific and highly technical issue being discussed, the Moderator does not have to have – and it is better that the Moderator does not have – the solution already worked out in his/her back pocket. He/she should be impartial.

The successful brainstorming sessions I have seen have generally followed the approach to be presented here. There are, however, as many successful and good approaches to Brainstorming as there are books in the market and articles on the Internet. Since I cannot comment on what I have not seen, I will limit myself to the general approach that I have seen work in my 30 years as a management consultant and 10 years in operational line management.

DISCLAIMER: Please understand that this article is for educational purposes only.  The author is not a lawyer, accountant or insurance broker.  Recommendations presented are intended as practical observations, suggestions and a guide to areas requiring further analysis and perhaps certain changes.  Only you can make decisions and implement changes.

Check out C2CB.co if you need a clarifying, no-obligation discussion or some pro-bono consulting help about how to get this done.

End of Part 1.  Look for Part 2, a discussion of the Brainstorming process, on this site shortly.