Basic Business Cents

You cannot legislate creativity, but brainstorming is a tool that is helpful. It taps the brains of a number of people and allows them to build off others’ thoughts. It is a great technique for generating creative ideas, a fun way to get fresh ideas in the open, and get everyone to thinking together.

When looking for solutions to a problem or a challenge, assemble a group of people involved with the area where the problem exists. Develop a clear problem statement that everyone understands. Choose a facilitator to record the ideas of solutions on a white board or, preferably sheets of paper like a sticky flip chart that can be posted on a wall so everyone can see the ideas. Ensure they are clearly visible to everyone.

Explain the rules of brainstorming:

  • Encourage spontaneous, freewheeling responses
  • Do not discuss each other’s ideas
  • Cultivate a supportive atmosphere
  • Emphasize quantity, not quality
  • Build on ideas of others
  • Write everything down
  • Seek total participation from the group
  • Discourage negative, nonverbal responses to ideas

Do not allow any criticism or evaluation of others ideas. Emphasize that there is no such thing as a bad idea. It might seem crazy or far out at the time, but it could lead to triggering an idea in some else that would not have otherwise surfaced. The facilitator is to write down every idea without evaluating the merits of the idea. Do not suspend the process to discuss a single idea but keep the flow of ideas going. Build on other ideas and it is surprising how many good thoughts emerge. At this time, focus on quantity, not quality of ideas. Brainstorming tends to be fast going for a while until a lull is reached. The flow of ideas can be restarted with an out-of-the-box idea or a prompt by the facilitator.

An alternative form of brainstorming is called a cause-and-effect diagram. It is sometimes useful to draw a skeleton of a fish on the paper or board with the problem shown as the head and four lines drawn from the backbone to brainstorm the possible causes of the problem. The titles of the four categories are typically methods, material, machinery, and manpower, referred to as the 4Ms. Today, for obvious reasons, the category manpower is changed to people. Other categories can be used, but these four are convenient to get things started. At this time you are not trying to find the solution, only the principal cause or causes. Data can be collected to validate the causes. With the principal cause (s) identified, the solution may be obvious.

Once the flow of ideas is spent, it is time narrow the field down to the cause or solution. This can be done in several ways. One is to lead the discussion until a true consensus is reached, rather than a meaningless compromise. Care should be taken that outspoken people do not dominate the result.

Another way is to vote. Each participant can be given three votes and they can go to the wall and cast their votes on the solutions or causes that they feel are most important. After everyone has voted, the principals will stand out.

A third way is to group the ideas into a few similar subjects and perform a cause and effect test of each group to the other. The group with the most causes versus effects emerges as the group to pursue.

The brainstorming tool surfaces creative ideas to solve problems not otherwise available and builds teamwork and enthusiasm as a plus. Who knew solving a work problem could be fun?