To avoid idea freeze, small businesses need to take advantage of the brain power of every person connected with a product or project. If you have experience or knowledge of brainstorming, you already know that the techniques can be a great way to solve problems and generate new ideas … if you can get past a few downsides.
Good news: whether you need ideas from your employees, your vendors or your clients, brainstorming sessions do not have to require excessive and costly time commitments to develop workable solutions for your business issues. The following four techniques can help you use group-think to efficiently generate ideas and solutions.
1. Prepare in Advance to Keep Meetings from Becoming Overnighters
The cardinal rule of brainstorming sessions is that there are no bad ideas. But, there is no rule that says that you have to use meeting time to develop your initial idea list. Loran Nordgren, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, has a practical approach that saves valuable time. When issuing invitations for the meeting, ask participants to propose their ideas in advance.
A prepared idea list instantly eliminates the most time-consuming portion of the meeting. Once participants settle in with their coffee and sweet rolls, they are ready to assess the merits of each idea and build solutions that make sense.
For the record, Nordgren offers an app to help brainstorm participants decouple the idea-generation phase from the evaluation phase. While he stresses that the app can be helpful, he maintains that it is not absolutely necessary.
2. At the Onset, Separate the Wheat from the Chaff
Even if there are no bad ideas, there are impractical ones, so don't get into any serious discussions before you apply a clear set of objective criteria to the list. You can quickly reduce the list by eliminating the unworkable ones. If you know up-front that an idea is too expensive, takes too long or requires resources that you don't have, then you probably don't need to discuss it further.
But, keep in mind that brainstorming sessions can reveal surprising solutions. For example, five people in the meeting might agree that you would have to hire three new employees to assemble a proposed new product. The sixth person, on the other hand, might know how the existing team can do it with minor modifications to the process. This kind of thinking is what brainstorming is all about.
3. Leave Power Trips at the Door
As a small business owner, you may be both co-worker and boss. And, if your brainstorming session involves outside participants — such as vendors or even clients — you might have several bosses in the room. Other participants sometimes remain silent when their ideas conflict with those of the power players.
Highly-ranked meeting participants need to leave all arrogance at the door — and actively encourage conflicting opinions and ideas. Of course, this is not as simple as it sounds. You probably know the attitudes of all of your invitees. If you believe an attendee cannot take an objective look at the ideas of others, it may be best to have them invite a knowledgeable representative who can better embrace the spirit of brainstorming.
4. Avoid Meeting Domination
Even if everyone in the meeting is at the same level, some people are more vocal than others. They instantly have more to say about any topic and they often interrupt when others attempt to voice their thoughts. Clearly, the facilitator needs to gain control over these situations, but it is vital to understand that the outspoken participants are no more at fault than the reserved ones.
This is not the time to reprimand rude behavior or teach conversational courtesy, but you don't want to revert to school days by putting the quiet individuals on the spot ("What do you think, Tommy?). Naturally, the personality profiles of the individuals at the table will drive how you handle any given situation. A great option is to use an extrovert's monologue to solicit other opinions (“George made some great points. Let's spend some time discussing them.").
Rules and Creativity Go Hand-in-Hand
It may seem counterintuitive to equate any form of structure with a free-flow of creativity, but without structure, creativity cannot exist. A brainstorming session based on a few logical rules provides the direction necessary to unleash meaningful ideas.