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There are a numerous approaches to brainstorming, but whichever approach you use, there are several key factors that make the difference between a successful brainstorming session and a mediocre brainstorming session.

State your challenge correctly.

In order to get the right ideas, you need to ensure that you are giving the brainstorm session participants the right challenge. Otherwise, you could end up with a lot of ideas which do not actually solve your problem.

No squelching!

Squelching is when you criticise an idea or a person contributing the idea. Squelching can be obvious, such as “That’s the dumbest idea I have ever heard!” or subtle, such as “you’d never get the budget to do that.” No matter what the form, squelching does two terrible things to a brainstorming session. Firstly, it makes the person who contributed the idea feel bad. As a result, she is unlikely to contribute any more ideas to the session. Even if her idea was not a good one, it is likely she would have had other, better ideas to contribute. Secondly, squelching tells other participants that unusual ideas are not welcome at this brainstorming session. Since most creative ideas are also unusual ideas, a single squelching effectively prevents participants from offering creative ideas. So, if you remember nothing else about brainstorming when running a business, remember: no squelching!

Mixed participants.

When brainstorming works well, it is because the session taps into the combined creativity of all the participants. Clearly, then, the more varied the participants, the wider the range of creative thinking and the more creative the ideas generated. It is a common mistake for managers to think: we need marketing ideas, so let’s get the marketing department together to brainstorm ideas. These people work together all the time, have similar backgrounds and know too much about marketing. As a result, their ideas will be limited in scope. Bringing together a dozen people from a dozen departments is a far better approach to generating a wide range of creative ideas.

Enthusiastic facilitator.

The facilitator is the person who manages the brainstorming session. Normally, she does not contribute ideas, rather she makes note of the ideas, encourages participation, prevents squelching, watches the time and directs the session. A good facilitator will have a sense of humour and a knack for encouraging people to contribute ideas and be creative in their thinking. A good facilitator compliments ideas and gives high praise to the most outrageous ideas – that’s because she knows that outrageous ideas encourage outrageous thinking which generates creative ideas. Moreover, what at first might seem a crazy idea may, on reflection, prove to be a very creative idea. Incidentally, if the facilitator is in the same company as the participants, care should be taken not to use a facilitator who is significantly higher in the corporate heirarchy. A high ranking moderator can make participants reluctant to take the risk of proposing an outrageous or highly unusual idea.

Well stated challenge.

The challenge is the problem or issue for which you will be generating ideas. It is important to indicate very clearly the challenge in such a way as to indicate the kind of ideas you want, while not making the challenge so restricting that brainstormers cannot get creative. In our experience, the most common problem is that the challenge is vaguely phrased. A manager who is looking for ideas on how to improve product X in order to make it more attractive to younger customers all too often phrases the challenge like this: “New product ideas” or “product improvements”. Such vague challenges encourage vague ideas, many of which do not respond to the managers’ needs.

Good environment with no disturbances.

An uncomfortable environment, an overly small room, cellphone calls and sectretaries calling their bosses out of the room for a moment all not only interupt a brainstorming session, but also interupt the continuity and thinking of participants. If you want an effective brainstorming session, you must insist participants turn off their telephones and inform their staff that they are not to be disturbed short of a total catastrophe. You should find a space that is large enough for the group and comfortable. A supply of water and coffee should be provided. Sometimes a little alcohol, such as wine or beer, can loosen people up and reduce inhibitions about proposing crazy ideas. Where possible, hold the brainstorming session outside your office, in a pleasant environment where participants are less likely to be disturbed or worry about their other work obligations.

© Jeffrey Baumgartner

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the managing director and a major shareholder of Bwiti bvba, a Belgian based company that provides innovation and creativity services to organisations around the world. Bwiti is a member of the JPB (www.jpb.com) a small group of companies founded or owned by Jeffrey’s family.

Jeffrey is a specialist in organisational and group innovation. He is fascinated by tools and techniques that make groups – whether small teams or multinational firms – more creative and more innovative. Moreover, thanks to more than 15 years of experience in a variety of organisations on three continents, Jeffrey has learned more than most about what makes organisations more innovative – and what hinders innovation.