The power of group brainstorming comes from “creating a safe place where people with different ideas can share, blend and expand their diverse collective knowledge”. Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen shows that creativity occurs when people find ways to build on existing ideas. A formal idea generating process itself is a relatively straightforward part of any decision-making or problem-solving model:

  1. Regardless of the size of the group, there has to be a leader and a recorder. The same person can do both. Facilitating a brainstorming session is a special skill that can take some time to learn (there are professionals who do nothing but facilitate brainstorming sessions), so if you’ve never had experience with it, consider asking an experienced peer to lead your first session.

  2. Define the decision or problem to be brainstormed and make sure the definition is absolutely clear to all participants.

  3. Set ground rules for the session:
    • The leader is in control
    • Everyone is encouraged to contribute.
    • No idea will be ridiculed, demeaned or insulted.
    • There are no wrong answers, no matter how far out they sound.
    • Every idea will be recorded unless it is a repeat.
    • There will be a set time limit the session will stop when the time is up.

  4. Start! Have the leader call on members of the group to be sure that everyone is included. (If everyone calls out ideas at the same time, some valuable input can be missed.) Be sure the recorder is writing all ideas down on a white board or flip chart where everyone can see them.

  5. Once you’ve finished, go through the results, looking for answers that are repeated or similar, grouping similar concepts together and eliminating responses that definitely don’t fit at all. This will narrow the number of options down to a workable list of alternatives to consider in your decision-making or problem-solving process.

A Much Less Formal Option
But Great Idea Generator

Early in my career, I participated in a brainstorming session that I’ve never forgotten – both the process and the outcome!

Our manager had been asked to come up with a logo and promotional “tag line” for a new product and just couldn’t get it. The product was frankly boring and all she could come up with were some puns or word plays to try and jazz it up.

She herded us all into a conference room where the big table was completely covered with flip chart sheets and every imaginable color of magic marker. (There were also pizza and soft drinks on a side table.)

She made sure we all understood the product and its target audience. Then she explained that our logo and “tag line” needed to:

  • Be original but incorporate enough of the company logo to ID the product as ours
  • Be slightly “edgy” without making anyone say “ouch”
  • Describe the product using very few words
  • Take a good-natured swipe at our competition without using their name
  • Pass muster with our “hands-on” CEO
  • Be done in one hour

We tossed a few ideas around while we ate, then she sat us down and told us to just write down any words or images that popped into our heads. Eight of us went at it for half an hour non-stop. After 30 minutes we all walked around the table to look at everything that had been put down.

And there it was!

One person had a word combination that was perfect, and when added to words someone else had written, there was our “tag line”. The product logo emerged the same way – a combination of several graphic ideas. (The only thing the CEO changed was one of the colors.)

Try this technique if the right opportunity ever presents itself. Who knows – maybe you’ll come up with the next Nike “swoosh”!