[This is the second part of a two-part series on Brainstorming during the COVID-19 crisis.  Part 1 was published recently.  In Part 1 we discussed the composition of the Brainstorming team.]

Steps in the Brainstorming Process

1) Problem Definition

Not surprisingly, defining the problem is a key, first challenge. In today’s COVID19 environment, falling, or even non-existent, sales are for many, THE PROBLEM. Defining the real problem or problems that form its root causes is going to be a step in resolving THE PROBLEM, but not the first step. That must come later. For example, the entire Restaurant staff might know that a mandatory 50% seating limit, plus 6’ of separation for social distancing, plus COVID19’s reduction in their clientele’s incomes and purchasing power has demolished their traditional sit-down business model.

In this case, the Problem might be stated in terms of the Restaurant’s needs or impact desired, such as “We need to recover at least 60% of our Pre-COVID19 sales” or “We must reduce our fixed expenses by 25%”. The solution to the problem might just be a combination of both.

Placing the problem in these terms eliminates pre-conceived definitions of the problem such as “Our marketing is poor” or “Our menu is too high-priced” or “Our service is poor” or similar a priori constructs. This allows for everyone to contribute their ideas.

In some cases, there may need to be a mini-Brainstorming session beforehand just to determine what the Problem Statement is to ensure that it is unbiased and pointing at the real effects desired.

2) Constraint Definitions and Criteria for a Successful Solution

If there are some inflexible constraints, such as “Our rent is USD 2,500 per month” or “We can only spend USD 1,000 on marketing and advertising monthly” or “We are committed to no layoffs and all pain will be equally shared”, then these must be made clear at the beginning. Obviously, if in the course of the Brainstorming session no viable solutions appear subject to these constraints, then these too must be re-examined to evaluate whether workarounds exist. Again, there are no cookie cutter solutions.

Similarly, either by Brainstorming group consensus or top management direction, some criteria must be placed on the table to guide the development of solutions. If not, the group may devolve into a generator of abstract, but impractical ideas. If tradeoffs are to be made, the criteria for evaluating these tradeoffs should be made clear at the beginning. For example: “Every dollar that we cannot recuperate in sales needs a 30 cents reduction in fixed costs in 30 days”,  or “We can break our USD 1,000 limit on marketing, but each dollar spent in addition needs to, with a high probability, generate at least USD 3.00 in sales within 30 days.”

3) The Idea Generation Stage

If a small group, this can be done by the group as a whole [frequently called “The Plenary Session” or “The Plenum” for short.] If large, then it is recommended to break it down into 3-6-person Sub-groups [which may be called “The Tables” or “The Deliberating Groups”].

A highly effective tool before the Idea Generation phase starts group work is to have individuals spend 10-15 minutes writing down their initial ideas on paper. This can be done before or at the beginning of the Brainstorming session provided that the ‘Constraints’ [see above] have been shared. This helps to eliminate “GroupThink” where once an idea is presented to the group, then others adopt it since that presents a position of less personal risk than presenting their own ideas. (Markman, 2017) A vital element of the Idea Generation phase is to collect as many ideas as possible without any criticism. So called “Devil’s Advocates” are not welcome at this stage since the idea is to collect ideas, not criticize or evaluate them.

If time was allotted to individual ideas, then each Table or the Plenum would collect the ideas and review to see which ones are repeated and which ones can build off each other. If not, then these ideas would be first considered as well as presented during the Idea Generation phase. Very often constructive “Piggybacking” occurs, where one individual feeds off of another’s idea and a new idea emerges. This is perfectly fine, and is actually a positive result from the Idea Generation Stage.

The Idea Generation stage may last from as little as 15 minutes [not counting the Individual Idea Generation time] to 30-45 minutes. This gives time for ideas to be explained within the group, without criticism, just for posing questions of understanding. This permits ideas to be combined and maybe enhanced by other members.

A positive outcome could be 3-5 ideas from each table or around one idea per two members of the Plenum. The recorder should compile a list of the ideas from the Table or Plenum members for further study and analysis. Approximately 5-10-20 ideas or more, depending on the overall group size, should come from an average session in a 30-45-minute period.

We would refer all managers interested in Brainstorming to review Osborn’s Rules for Brainstorming (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 1998).

  1. No criticism, evaluation, judgment, or defense of ideas during the brainstorming session.
  2. No limit on “wild” ideas, no matter how outrageous or impractical they seem. Every idea is to be expressed.
  3. Quantity is more desired than quality.
  4. “Piggybacking”—building on ideas—is encouraged.

 

4) The Analytical-Screening Stage

This stage is where Idea Review and Evaluation takes place. Only at this point should ideas be analyzed for their merits. Care should be exercised in studying these ideas lest a good possibility be overlooked. At this point, the Plenum should ask itself whether there are any more ideas to consider. In an open discussion, the Plenum may combine or ‘Piggyback’ ideas from different Tables into more solid ideas for consideration. This Plenum is the right moment to discuss the specific and inter-related problems that are the root causes of THE PROBLEM. This would be the right time to separate into root causes and send back to Idea Generation stage creative sessions. If some of these appear to have a greater complexity than could be handled by a generalist group, specific technically equipped groups could be formed to evaluate these issues. Brainstorming is confined to broad concepts, ideas, or directions. Technical specifics are best managed by technically proficient sub-groups, like, “How do we improve our SEO?” or “Reduce our process wastes?” The function of a Brainstorming group is to generate general ideas and directions which will drive change and improvement.

The Analytical Screening stage may not be able to fully evaluate all the alternatives put forth. It may decide to have several technical sub-groups evaluate the proposals presented.

5) The Development and Implementation Stage

Brainstorming is not the be all or end all of the process. The group must be motivated to continue to act as an agent for Change Management. In this, management must ensure that at least some of its suggestions are put into action to develop some ‘quick hits’ and motivate the group to remain active for future endeavors and challenges. This also helps to set an example for the future growth of the company/organization and to strengthen team building. Nothing would discredit the process more than to see all of the group’s work filed away, put in the ‘circular file’ or otherwise ignored. There must always be positive feedback to show the group that their efforts were worthwhile and valuable.

On the other hand, Development and Implementation of the ideas that came out of the Brainstorming session may, and probably will, need specific management and technical expertise not available in the Plenum or the Tables. Specific ‘Implementation Managers’ for each initiative may be required. No Brainstorming group, no matter how diverse, technically skilled or dedicated, can be expected to produce a finished solution, refined in all details in a one-day session. These must be developed by more focused and specialized team. As development progresses, the Brainstorming group can be recalled supporting and enriching the specific improvements and evolutions of the core concepts generated. Its main function is always to generate new ideas and generate cross-pollinated ideas by including many disciplines and within a diverse group environment.

This stage may select various ideas for further development, believing that more than one approach is viable. Additional teams may be formed to further the work of the original Brainstorming group, but never to criticize or subtract value from the work that the original team produced unless new data has appeared.

Conclusions

Brainstorming can be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting for all participants, including the Moderator, Recorders [if these exist separately from the attendees] and the Attendees. It is vital to have breaks when the discussions appear too heated, when divergence seems to overwhelm convergence and when differences of opinion seem to destroy the sense of group and common purpose. For this, the Moderator is a vital element. Getting off track and into ‘rabbit holes’ is also a problem. For this too, the Moderator is a vital element.

Not having an Implementation Manager to assume the development of the ideas into practical results is a recipe for failure. For this, having good Implementation Managers is a vital element.

To ensure organization wide buy in into the process and its conclusions, having top level CEO support will most likely lead to success. Nothing else will ensure the success or failure of Brainstorming efforts more than having or not having top level, 100% committed support. For this, there is no substitute for having CEO/Owner/top management level support. If that is not there, do not even bother. It would be a waste of time and destroy company morale and employee efficiency and effectiveness.

Experience shows that creativity, especially in the Idea Generation stage, thrives on a loose and unstructured atmosphere, where criticism is suspended, and the play of imagination and new ideas is encouraged. The old adage that ‘the best part of the meeting is when it is over’ is true here. Frequently ground-breaking ideas or paradigm-shifting concepts or the union of heretofore unrelated ideas, appear in coffee breaks, water fountain meetings and other spontaneous interactions between participants. The entire process should encourage, not discourage these developments. During the Analytical stage, Devil’s Advocates are welcome, never before. In the Development and Implementation phase, Devil’s Advocates can run rampant, since their observations will most likely save the organization much expenditure of funds, time, and resources.

A final sidebar: no one should be taken to task post-Brainstorming for ideas presented in the Idea Generation stage, for holding adverse analytical points of view in the Screening stage or voicing criticisms in the Development and Implementation phase. Once the Brainstorming session is over, it is over. No individual should be either rewarded or punished for contributions or ideas, wise or wild, clear or cock-eyed, presented during the sessions. All must be viewed as having contributed equally to the success of the Brainstorming session and the follow up efforts.

Good organizations will promote Brainstorming as a valuable tool to generate employee involvement in the company or organization’s growth and development. Strong team building is a secondary, but most valuable consequence. This is one that will positively impact any organization as it seeks to develop new ideas, implement new programs or even simply complete its normal book of business. Although a specific Brainstorming exercise may not produce all of the ideas required, nor result in immediate short or long-term impact, in the long term, it must be viewed as a valuable tool to achieve the organization’s goals.

In COVID19 times, where things are tough, ‘the tough get going’. Supporting and encouraging Brainstorming sessions is a low-cost, high-impact way for business owners to turn the scourge of COVID19 into something that can benefit their organizations through, beyond and above, COVID19.

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.

Some recommended readings:

Besant, H. (Vol. 2 Iss. 1, Summer 2016, ). The Journey of Brainstorming. Journal of Transformational Innovation, , pp. 1 – 7.

Brainstorming. (2020, May 30). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainstorming

Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. (1998, N/A N/A). BRAINSTORMING from The Pfeiffer Library Volume 26, 2nd Edition. .Retrieved from http://home.snu.edu/: http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v26.pdf

Markman, A. (2017, May 18). Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2017/05/your-team-is-brainstorming-all-wrong