When innovation became a key factor in my compensation and my then employer, Johnson & Johnson, tracked the revenue gains I generated, a sage manager warned me that this would be the hardest job of my life. He said that a concern was that nobody could just sit down and generate big ideas, brainstorms never worked, and that I would struggle to achieve the stretch goals that had been set for me. I wasn’t just being asked for one big idea but had to deliver dozens of them, each one global and each one significant in incremental opportunity. They had to be breakthrough and test well with consumers and stakeholders.
He was right about some things – it was one of the hardest jobs in my life. However, he was wrong about brainstorms. Structured correctly, brainstorms generate strong results and I learned fast to ensure that they did. By now, I have planned and led over 200 brainstorms.
Today at Luminations, we run our trademarked Lightning Strike® brainstorms with the benefit of these tenets. They can be a physical get together, sessions that pull cross-functional partners together for an all-day workshop, or they can be done virtually with a virtual whiteboard and Webex.
Here are my top 10 points to power your brainstorms.
- Ground everyone in data, information and the hypotheses you already have. Do the necessary background work and be sure to share it in simplified form with those participating in your brainstorm. Lead with this foundational learning to ensure everyone has a similar level of basic knowledge and all can participate.
- Make the parameters and deliverables crystal clear. Let everyone know upfront what the expectations and goals are. Acknowledge any naysayers or obstacles but move on. If asked, everyone attending should be able to articulate what we want to accomplish in this specific brainstorm.
- Leverage experts, trained professionals and outside thinkers. There is tremendous value in outside thinking. It is so easy to become insulated and to develop blinders in a category, channel, industry or other areas. Bringing in outsiders helps eliminate this issue. They ask questions and bring examples and precedents from other disciplines. They view a prospective consumer, customer or patient from a different angle. And they bring associative logic.
- Facilitate with finesse. If possible, use an outside facilitator to enable all team members to step back, participate and keep the ideating on track. The day or discussion should be explicitly choreographed to maximize results. Make the group aware that their presence, when in the room/conference call, is required – this means no electronic distractions. We often collect phones and iPads at the beginning of our sessions and redistribute during break times. Once people get over the uncomfortable feeling of not having their phone at hand, they usually participate with gusto.
- Develop stimuli and exercises that move the group toward the desired outcomes. Don’t sit still – make sure to plan exercises that get people up and moving. Physically moving around helps stimulate the brain. Use stimuli to advance thinking – photos, ads, quotes, products (not always in the current category) and even toys to keep the hands occupied while thinking.
- Go in with thought-starters. While we inevitably get the juices flowing, sometimes it takes a little while to get ideas up on the board. Do a pre-planning session for each exercise that enables you to come in with some thought starters.
- Document, document, document. Lots of valuable ideas will crop up; be sure to capture them all, even if you cannot see right now how they might apply. Discussion, disagreement, questions, concerns and obstacles voiced are also important to document as they may be the genesis of an idea.
- Keep asking why to get to the insight behind an idea. When we teach insight identification, we gently push students to keep asking why to get to the bottom of the motivation for a decision. Challenging assumptions and probing on behaviors often leads to the underlying drivers, an important facet of any brainstorm.
- Acknowledge that different participants bring different strengths and leverage them. With any session comes a mix of background, experience, motivation and knowledge. Be sure you understand who will be in the room (or on the call) and think about how best to leverage her skills and background.
- Deliver a “finished” framework. Don’t let the end of the brainstorm be the end. It’s easy to walk away inspired and energized with no actionable next steps. Be sure to put together an organized summary of themes, key idea platforms and questions for the future. Don’t leave the session without alignment on what the team’s next steps are and who owns which initiative.
Brainstorming can work as an in-person session, a virtual session facilitated by new technologies that allow sharing of materials and whiteboards, and the process also works to ideate on your own. It can be daunting to sit down with a blank sheet of paper pressuring yourself to generate ideas for new baby products – so don’t. Instead, watch a mom diaper, feed, bathe and get a baby ready for bed. Listen to a caregiver talk about things she wishes were easier. Whenever we think about products for babies we also think about products for pets; after all, the actual consumer cannot articulate his or her wants or needs so the “parent” decides on their behalf. After you’ve steeped yourself in the experience of babies, start to jot down your ideas.
When structured correctly, a properly executed brainstorm can be immensely rewarding. Just be prepared to dive deep into the subject matter, engross yourself in the experience, and let the ideation begin.
This article first appeared in www.forbes.com
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