Friday, January 31, 2014

Brainstorming properly

We've all experienced brainstorming sessions: a group of people, often chosen largely for political reasons, begin by listening passively as a moderator (often an outsider who knows little about the business) urges you to 'Get creative!' and 'Think outside the box!' and cheerfully reminds you that 'There are no bad ideas!'

The result? Some attendees remain stone-faced throughout the day, others contribute sporadically, and a few loudly dominate the session with their pet ideas. Ideas pop up randomly - some intriguing, many preposterous - but because the session has no structure, little momentum builds around any of them. At session's end, the group trundles off with a hazy idea of what, if anything, will happen next. 'Now we can get back to real work', some whisper.

It doesn't have to be like this.  By undertaking better preparation and providing structure throughout a brainstorming technique, organisations can greatly enhance their chances of generating better ideas that will be implemented.

  1. Know your boundaries:  One reason good ideas hatched in corporate brainstorming sessions often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider or to implement. 'Think outside the box!' is an unhelpful exhortation if external circumstances or company policies create boxes that the organization truly must live within.
  2. Ask the right questions:  Build the workshop around a series of 'right questions' that the team explores in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions. The trick is to identify questions with two characteristics. First, they should force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. Why? Because whenever you look for new ways to approach an old problem you naturally gravitate toward thinking patterns and ideas that worked in the past. Research shows that, over time, you'll come up with fewer good ideas, despite increased effort. Changing your participants' perspective will shake up their thinking. The second characteristic of a right question is that it limits the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes.
  3. Choose the right people:  The rule here is simple: pick people who can answer the questions you’re asking. As obvious as this sounds, it’s not what happens in many traditional brainstorming sessions, where participants are often chosen with less regard for their specific knowledge than for their prominence on the org chart.
  4. Use subgroups:  To ensure fruitful discussions, don't have participants hold one continuous, rambling discussion among the entire group for several hours. Instead, have them conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups of three to five people - no fewer, no more. Each subgroup should focus on a single question for a full 30 minutes. Why three to five people? The usual behaviour in groups of this size is to speak up, whereas the norm in a larger group is to stay quiet.
  5. Brief them first:  After your participants arrive, but before the division into subgroups, orient them so that your expectations about what they will - and won’t - accomplish are clear. Each subgroup will thoughtfully consider and discuss a single question for a half hour. No other idea from any source - no matter how good - should be mentioned during a subgroup’s individual session. Tell participants that if anyone thinks of a 'silver bullet' solution that's outside the scope of discussion, they should write it down and share it later.

    Also, whenever possible, share 'signpost examples' before the start of each session - real questions previous groups used, along with success stories, to motivate participants and show them how a question-based approach can help.
  6. Follow up quickly:  Decisions and other follow-up activities should be quick and thorough. Of course, we’re not suggesting that uninformed or insufficiently researched conclusions should be reached about ideas dreamed up only hours earlier. But the odds that concrete action will result from an idea generation exercise tend to decline quickly as time passes and momentum fades.

Go on – take the first step

The mornings may be getting lighter, but at 6.30am in January, it is still more appealing to ignore the alarm and keep snuggled under the duvet. But today, instead I ignored the lure of a final half an hour of coziness and donned my running shoes for a blast of exercise. Yes, it is a resolution for 2014 – and we all know what often happens with good intentions – but the difference this year, is an attitude of “just do it” (thank you Nike). And of course to “just do it”, I had to stop talking about wanting to run and literally take the first step.

A coach’s job is to help unispring ideas and motivation within their clients – coming from the belief that we all have the resourcefulness within us. So we often know what changes we have to make, whether it is exercise, taking a decision to move jobs or to deal with a non performing team member. The trick is to get started! Sure, discuss your issue at length, build a plan of action, evaluate best routes, think things through, but there will be no change unless you actually do something. Here are some ideas

  1. Break your pattern, do something spontaneous, whether it is going for a 10 minute walk or sitting at a different desk. There is nothing like a change of scenery to change your perspective
  2. Perfectionists beware! Break down your goal into bite sized chunks and then bite off the first one. Overwhelm is the enemy of action. When I realised I could start my running campaign with just 10 minutes – and in that I could walk as well – all of a sudden it wasn’t so hard to start
  3. Identify what is stopping you. Is it laziness, a move out of your comfort zone, fear of the unknown or failure? Face it. No excuses - bite sized chunks of action make your excuses smaller. And remember, if you don’t start, nothing will happen anyway
  4. Get support. If you are truly stuck ask a friend for help – to provide the motivational rally cry, the encouragement from the side of the sports field. Peer pressure works
  5. Shout about it. Hit the social networks and drum up your cheerleaders 
  6. Become accountable. Diarise when you are going to do it. Put it in your diary now
  7. Be mindful. Take some time away from the world of screens and stimulation. Remove your distractions. Use that time to visualise success and recall feelings of success you have had in the past
  8. Change your evening pattern. Ensuring restful periods of time before sleep helps us have a balanced approach to life and helps us to knock through barriers and excuses
  9. Honestly assess the consequences of not getting started. Procrastination can make events spiral into even more complex challenged
  10. Think through your rewards. What benefits and impact will making this change bring to your life?

I love this quote from Martin Luther King which can be applied in any context - “Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.”