Below is an excerpt from the book The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation by A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan; published by Crown Business; April 2008; 978-0-307-38173-6. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
1. Get a facilitator.
This is the traffic cop of the session, and should be an outsider. An insider brings baggage that can inhibit the free flow of ideas. HR consulting organizations are one possible resource; if you are working with a design firm like IDEO or Continuum, they may be able to help. If bringing in an outsider is difficult for some reason, the second best option is to bring in someone from a different group inside the company. Facilitators need to be skilled at group dynamics, able to read when the team is flagging or when it is hitting on all cylinders. They have to be patient, yet willing to exercise discipline if one person can’t stop talking or is becoming aggressive. It is more a matter of personality than formal training, but it can’t hurt to bring in people to watch a well-run brainstorming session to see how it works.
2. Be prepared.
The Boy Scouts have it right. Preparation is a key to success. In terms of brainstorming, this means two things. First, the topic needs to be well understood. Balance is required here. The subject needs to be specific enough for good answers to be possible (a session on the theme of “new ideas for cleaning” is going to be deadly) and general enough to provide room for creativity (“industrial abrasives for stainless steel sinks” is not going to get anyone excited). What could work: Well, IDEO did a useful session with P&G on “how to reinvent bathroom cleaning.” The topic needs to be defined in terms of either the market or of consumer needs and habits; all the participants need to know what it is, and also have a little time to think about it. You want them to bring something to the party; this can be the glimmering of an idea, a competitor’s product, a color pattern, a series of useful words or images, or an interesting question. Something — anything — to get to the launch pad.
Fear blocks both the generation and expression of ideas. Not every company or team will be comfortable with this, but consider doing some kind of word game or ice-breaking exercise to loosen people up (e.g., the improv circles at Clay Street). Discourage negative comments; as the session goes on, it is going to become apparent which ideas have any kind of future — bad ones do not have to be shot down on sight. At Clay Street, the buzzwords are “Yes, and . . . ” Not “Yes, but . . . ” Trust is the word here; people need to believe that they can say what they think without the risk of being ridiculed.
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4. Leaders should follow.
The whole idea of a brainstorming session is that it be open and freewheeling. But everyone at the table is going to be aware of who else is there, and where each person sits in the corporate hierarchy. There is going to be the usual human desire to please one’s superiors. Consciously or not, some people some of the time will try to do so by agreeing up the ladder. So leaders should be careful about when and how they talk. General Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says when he wants to get an honest opinion, he asks a question neutrally and then gives his opinion last. If he gives his thoughts first, that colors the entire discussion. The whole point of brainstorming is that everyone participates, so we are not suggesting that leaders simply shut up; but they should think carefully about how they join in. Don’t close down discussion; don’t be the first to weigh in on everything; do tap into other people’s ideas; ask questions.
5. Get everyone to contribute.
This should be obvious, but group dynamics are such that it does not always happen. And it won’t if people are intimidated or the tone is brutal (see rules 2 and 3). The wrong way to get everyone involved is to go around the table or to single people out — that can be scary. The right way is for the facilitator to know why each person has been selected to be in the room and try to play to each individual’s expertise. Discourage interruptions; not only can this be rude, but it can silence those who lack the personal style to persevere through them.
6. Keep track of ideas.
Obvious, but essential. Use a whiteboard or a big sheet of paper so that everyone can see what has been said and make connections between ideas. Allow people to write down their own ideas; it lets them refine them as they go along and also gets them out of their chairs, which can be rejuvenating. Discourage taking notes. If necessary, tape and transcribe meetings; or bring in someone to do so. If people have their head down writing what has just happened, their mind is not in the moment. Number new ideas as they occur for easy reference; this also builds a sense of accomplishment as the number accumulates, or as incentive for action, if it doesn’t. Quantity matters in brainstorming.
7. Think ahead.
Done right, brainstorming can be fun, sort of like a college bull session, but with full pay. Of course, that is not the point. Brainstorming is supposed to be a start of something, not an end in itself. At the end of the meeting, the participants should figure out what to do next to refine the insights generated. Brainstorming is itself a kind of Connect and Develop; generate ideas, then connect them, and repeat. This is not the time for considering practicalities, but for simply exploring ideas on a conceptual basis.
8. Use props.
One of the reasons for rule 6 is that some people think visually; putting stuff up for them to see is a way to engage their mind. Others think best with their hands. So bring in prototypes of related things, versions of current (or competitive) products, even just bits and pieces that seem relevant — a color wheel, say, or advertisements, or a deconstruction of what you are talking about. Anything to get people thinking in practical terms about what you want to achieve. And again, this helps to keep them awake and interested. IDEO brings things like foam, duct tape, glue, straws, and markers to make models or just get the physical juices stirring.
9. Go outside the lines.
Consider the metaphor contained within the word brainstorm. A storm is wild, volatile, and often random; it is weather with a passion. But it also has a beginning and an end. A good brainstorm should be something like that; without a degree of impulsiveness, of something very like whimsy, it will end up as a puddle, not a storm. And that is a waste of time. So let people stray into odd territory and let others follow; this just may lead in the direction most likely to get you to the ultimate destination. The facilitator needs to have the judgment, though, to reel people in if they are too far gone or go on for too long.
10. Follow the rules.
From the outside, a brainstorming session may look chaotic; in fact, it has its own discipline. If this is not adhered to, people might have fun, but they will not produce ideas worthy of their time.
A.G. Lafley is the chairman and CEO of P&G, which is consistently recognized as one of the most admired companies in the world and a great developer of business leaders. A.G. was named CEO of the year in 2006 by Chief Executive magazine and serves on the boards of GE and Dell. His first opportunity to manage a business came when he was in the Navy and in charge of retail and services businesses for ten thousand Navy and Marine Corps people and their families. After the Navy he went to Harvard Business School, and then joined P&G following graduation. He started as a brand assistant for Joy in 1977 and was appointed CEO in June of 2000.
Ram Charan is the coauthor of the bestseller Execution and the author of What the CEO Wans You to Know, Know-How, and many other books. Dr. Charan grew up in India, where he first learned the art and science of business in his family’s shoe shop. After earning his M.B.A. and D.B.A. from Harvard Business School, he taught for a number of years at both Harvard and Northwestern. He now advises the leaders and boards of companies around the world, including GE, DuPont, Nokia, Verizon, and the Thomson Corporation. What people around the world proclaim are Ram’s practicality and the value he provides in helping them solve business problems. For more information on Ram Charan and his work, visit www.ram-charan.com.